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Monday, 31 December 2012

Predictions for 2013....

January. Starbucks go bust. The general public make a national New Years resolution to 'evade' Starbucks whilst they continue to 'evade' taxes and 'evade' making decent coffee. After pretending that they have been making a loss in the UK for the last few years, and only paying tax in one year out of 14, Star*ucks finally give up and go home. Good riddance

February. Obama decides to bring peace to the Middle East by bombing Syria and arming most of the sides in the civil war. Until free and fair elections can produce a new leader acceptable to the United States, Tony Blair is appointed Governor General Viceroy, due to his expertise at bringing peaceful resolutions to the region.

March. The wise senior management of the University of Sunderland allow me to erect a 'peace yurt' in the University Quad. It instantly becomes a huge success, and I am nominated for the 'University of Sunderland, Full time Chaplain of the Year award.' This becomes part of my pitch to become the new Bishop of Durham, pledging to move the 'See' of the Diocese to the new and exotic yurt headquarters in Sunderland. My manifesto also promises to have Bede's remains disinterred from Durham Cathedral and returned to it's rightful home in Makem land.

April turns out to be no joke, and the Government's new wave of austerity cuts involve taking away walking sticks from the elderly, and stealing candy from small children. George Osborne closes the last of the Remploy factories, selling the equipment and workers to sweatshops in China. 'That'll get them for booing me at the Olympics' sneers the Chancellor at a press launch. Rumours abound that he is secretly auditioning for the villain's role in the new James Bond movie.

May. Despite George Galloway's continued gaffes (he earlier declared that bestiality was just 'bad sexual kittiquette'') Respect councillors sweep to victory in several Bradford districts. They begin to turn the former Westfield site into a people's park and a huge outdoor bazaar.  However, the pledge to hold a referendum on independence, with the hope of granting asylum to Julian Assange recieves a less welcome response from the good people of the city.

June. To safeguard the wellbeing of the G8 superhero conference being held in Enniskillen, Britain  completely seals the borders of Northern Ireland. 'That should ensure that any terrorist threat is kept well and truly out of this peace loving part of the nation.' confirmed the Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness....

Sunday, 30 December 2012

2012, a poor year for mainstream films?

Was it just me, or was 2012 a poor year for film? Here are just some of the films that disappointed me over the last 12 months and some of the promising films of 2013:

The Hunger Games. Awful disappointment. Perhaps if I had been 12, I might of enjoyed this more. poor acting, dubious morality and just mostly dull.

The Avengers Assemble. I went purely out of loyalty to Joss Whedon, and will continue to admire him despite this over hyped study in 'event' cinema.

Prometheus. Even great actors and fantastic special effects could not stop the words 'plot holes' and 'turkey' flashing up in my mind throughout the screening.

Brave. It didn't make me laugh or cry, I thought it was just going through the motions. And does everything have to end with violence solving all the world's problems? In fairness, my wife and kids loved it. Maybe it had more of an appeal to the kinder sex.

Looper. Horrible, horrible, horrible. One or two good ideas do not make a whole movie. If it was so damn hard to kill people in the future, why did they shoot his future wife. One of far too many 'looper' holes.

Skyfall. I know what you are thinking - surely everybody liked this movie? I enjoyed it, and thought it was probably the best James Bond movie in a 'feel good about being British in 2012' sort of way. But I just wanted things to add up a bit more, and (spoiler alert) they shouldn't have killed her off! Sam Mendes? Just don't give the next 'Bond' to Ang Lee. Which brings us on to:

Life of Pi. Beautiful and pretentious waffle. Again, some impressive/stunning scenes and some worthy/good intentions does not make it 'the cinematic experience of the age'.


In fairness to 2012, I failed to see Argo, Dredd, The Dark Knight Rises or The Hobbit, so it might be that these films may have evened things out a bit. But having listened to my friends comments, I'm not so sure that spending money on these movies would have changed my mind about 2012 (with the exception perhaps of Argo). I much preferred to spend money in Fopp or HMV stores (they actually pay taxes unlike Amazon...) on the documentary films coming out of 'Dogwoof Ltd'.

Lets hope 2013 is an improvement: 'Cloud Atlas' and 'The Impossible' do look promising, though perhaps too ambitious. The films I'm most expectant about are 'Sons of the Clouds', a film about the forgotten war in Sahara, 'Oblivion' with a sci-fi tale that looks stunning; and of course Star Trek, Into Darkness, starring our very own Sherlock Holmes. Though perhaps instead, more of us should simply stop watching so many films and get more involved with the revolutionary struggle for a fairer and greener world? No? What a shame.

A Personal Review of 2012 Part III

We arrived at 2 Thornhill Terrace on the 31st August 2012. Sunderland is surprising beautiful, and despite the image problem, is a great place to live. Thornhill Terrace lies 1 minute walk from the Ivy House Pub, 2 mins walk from the Metro University Station, 3 mins from the city centre, 4 mins from the University and 5 minutes from the Minster. Ideal.

My new job is based at the Uni, a down to earth place with a real dedication to the region. I'm also attached to the city's Minster Church, which already has great clergy team, including my old friend Martin Anderson, and a dynamic and progressive new 'Provost' Sheila Bamber.

September saw lots of unpacking, a trip to London for the national gathering of Uni Chaplains, and some exciting discoveries (such as Barnes Park and Tunstall Hill). Fr John Dear came to talk in Sunderland on his national tour promoting non-violent direct action for peace. He was inspiring and challenging, even for me! The York gathering of the SPEAK network of social activist Christians was equally so. The Spilt music festival was the highlight of the month, especially hanging out with my favourite band - the Unthanks, who happened to do their rehearsals in the Minster.

At the very beginning of October I got to explore the area when I joined the Bede's Way walk for Christian Aid from St Peter's Church in Wearside to St Pauls in Jarrow. October saw the arrival of the 'Tax Justice Bus', and a debate with the local MP in the Minster. Tax Justice is the most important area to campaign about both in terms of global and local poverty (poor countries unable to raise revenue from greedy multinationals for development, and rich nations making cuts hitting the poor whilst big companies and individuals are allowed to evade taxes) There was also a planning meeting for a new Winter Nightshelter in Sunderland, which gave me the opportunity to network with those on the side of the disadvantaged in the city.

Amid all the meetings with Uni staff and local activists, I found time to be the theological reflector for the National Social Responsibility Board, which allowed me to get to know Basingstoke! Met some lovely folk who reminded me why I'm still in the Church of England.

I travelled up to Edinburgh to speak to the regional Student Christian Movement, and attended the National Demo against the Cuts, though this time, in Glasgow, not London - how a move shifts your geographical focus. On the march, I had the honour of walking with the Remploy workers section. It reminded me how vicious this government has been - axing 1000's of jobs for those with disabilities. Mental note; never forget how despicable the Condems have been to the most vulnerable.

October also saw two wonderful trips back to Bradford, first for 'Apple day' (nobody does it as well as Bradford!) and for the wedding of two dear friends, Ben and Tansy. They have been  a backbone of community activism and non-violent direct action for peace, and it was a real privilege to marry them!

November saw a memorable Diversity week at the Uni, and an exhausting bus journey to London with some Sunderland and Newcastle students for the national demo for a free and fair education. There was also a stay at Hazelwood Castle with the Harrogate Deanery - Liberation Theologians get themselves in very strange situations indeed.

Back in Sunderland, I began to make connections with the various anti-fascist groups. We will all have our work cut out as the far right have targeted the city in the hope of regaining some support. I think that the job of the church is to help both 'We are Sunderland' and 'Sunderland Together' unite in their common aim of diminishing the scope of the fascists coming into the city. The EDL, BNP, NPF and NF are all using the siting of a second mosque to create tensions within the area. They will be defeated by the left coming together, not fighting amongst themselves.

The University Memorial Service and a visit from Revd Barbara Glasson also stand out in a very busy month indeed. November included the Launch of our very own 'fresh expression' Church called 'SPACE'; Sunderland, Peace And Christianity Explored! During term time, it meets every Sunday evening in he Minster, and has already attracted some great folk. All very promising.

On an international front - the situation got much worse in both Palestine and Syria, and I really fear for the Middle East in the coming years. At least Mitt Romney was not elected, and despite my reservations about Obama, he at least may be able to resist the march towards a disastrous war against Iran.

December began with lots of fun, with a series of excellent 'World Aids day' events (thanks especially to Stephen Canning who spent a week living with us to help out) It was a month of singing, with a very well attended University Carol service, Carols and Cider in a local pub, and a fun 'flashmob' carol service in the Bridges shopping centre.

The joy of the new job and the obvious happiness of my wife and kids (great house, good school, and living near the sea) is marred by only two things. Firstly; the work prospects for my wife are grim. The local paper revealed at the end of December that Sunderland is the second worst place to be for jobhunting in the UK, and is one of the areas worst hit by this government's economic policies.

The Second problem is that the Church of England seems to be trying to commit suicide. At synod it was unable to pass legislation allowing women to become bishops, and then it made itself look nasty and backward in the debate about allowing same sex marriages in church buildings. The census results showing a massive decline in those willing to call themselves Christian should be a wake up call to the church.

The one bit of good news for the national church is that they have appointed the present Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby to be Rowan William's successor as Archbishop of Canterbury. He is a wise choice, and will oversee some much needed changes. The day after the announcement, I handed him a copy of a book about Archbishop Romero, a great man who became less conservative and more committed to the people as he gained high office. One can live in hope!

2012 - what a great year for the Howson family! Now, lets get on and work for faith, hope and peace in 2013!

Friday, 28 December 2012

Personal Review of 2012 part II

The decision to head off for a new adventure in Sunderland meant slowly letting friends and colleagues know that after 23 years of 'always being there', it was finally time to leave Bradford. I had 3 months notice to work through, so I deliberately set about making sure that it was a proper ending. Big parties, and lovely walks in my favourite places.

The Month of May saw local elections, and in Bradford, several Respect candidates upset the political apple cart once again. Everyone worried that Respect would 'bus in' councillors from further afield, but actually they simply went for the best local candidates who could sign up to their broadly left manifesto.  A few friends stood, and sadly lost, but many excellent new councillors appeared in the council chambers. Even a few labour councillors secretly cheered at the demise of the autocratic former city council leader.

May also saw the surprise election of Francios Hollande, a left wing president vowing to end the era of 'austerity' by promising investment and social improvements.  After economic right wing coups in Greece and Italy, finally some hope on the European front at long last.

June saw 'The Big Lunch' street party on Ashgrove - our most successful community event ever, with hundreds of people turning out to celebrate Bradford's diverse culture, and hardly a royalist in site. In a lovely turn of events, the group of trainee clergy who were helping me for the day were mostly from Sunderland! It gave me some great contacts for my journey to the North East.

The other interesting early Summer event, was the occupation of the Westfield site. The protest camp was aimed at the failure of Westfield to develop the city centre site, and it was met with strong support by local people. Because of George Galloway's support for the occupation, most of the local councillors condemned the action. Along with the 'occupy Menwith Hill Camp' that also sprang up during the summer - it seemed the natural way for the 'occupy' movement to go. Small, autonomous actions that showed up the failings of the Capitalist and Military rulers. Unstoppable and inspiring.

June also saw my last ever Street Angels shift - a project I had seen come to fruition over the last 5 years. It was sad to do my last evening with the gang - but I did feel I was getting ready to let go - and the current chair, Matt Dowson is a very capable chap. June also saw the third (and my final) 'Walk for Justice' to show solidarity with 'Sanctuary seekers' (sanctuary as opposed to the derogatory term used by the government; 'asylum seekers') This walk between Bradford and Leeds has been a real joy, allowing some quality time with people who have endured so much to come to the UK for safety.

June also saw the coup in Paraguay, bringing down President Lugo, the only fully blown Liberation Theologian to have ever been elected to power. On a happier note - Bob Diamond, chair of the corrupt Barclay's Bank was finally forced to resign. Lugo probably didn't get the kind of golden handshake that these corporate criminals get away with.

In July, there was a final party at Desmond Tutu House, and a beautiful service at SoulSpace. There I was presented with some wonderful bunting - each piece made by a different member of the church. It was all very moving, and I wept heavily during the final Eucharist. The end of an era.

I managed to avoid all of the Olympic fever by departing for a superb and much needed family holiday in Uruguay. It was a very special time, filled with many walks, good family fun, horse riding and even some drawing time.

Back in England, the last act of the summer was heading to the Greenbelt Festival, which was as inspiring and joyful as ever. August over, all my goodbyes said - it was time to head to Sunderland

Sunday, 23 December 2012

A Personal Review of 2012: Part I

January began with an assault on the surviving occupy camps around the UK, and it was inevitable that the London camp would end in a mess. Many made noble attempts to keep it going as a statement against some of the cruelest excesses of Capitalism - but it was not to be. Locally, we were battling to save some vital services for severely disabled people, but the cuts seemed relentless and were clearly hitting the most vulnerable the hardest.

The early part of 2012 saw some important work exposing the role of the US spy base at Menwith Hill - and my admiration for those at CND increases year on year. Dominic at the Yorkshire and Humberside office just impressed me over and over again - certainly in my book, he was one of the activists of the year.

March saw the airing of the Channel 4 documentary 'Make Bradford British', which many in the city had dreaded. (it did have a terrible name!) It turned out to be quite humane, and honest about the city. Many of us saw the programme in a positive light, and my blog title 'Make Britain Bradfordian' was even adopted by some of the participants.  Bradfordians could be proud of being flawed, but open to the possibilities of change and hope.

March also saw the opening of the new pool in the city centre - which was a triumphant act, and coincided with the opening of the much needed 'Home Made' art store and community centre.(which Cat and I helped paint!) Bradford felt like it was on the up. The city was also attracting international attention because George Galloway had chosen to stand for the Respect Party at the by-election caused by the previous incumbents alcohol related illness.

In early March, a few weeks before the election, a local Respect Party activist, suddenly died of a massive heart attack. Abu Bakr was young and well liked. I had known him through the Palestinian Solidarity campaign and he, his wife and their newly born child were regulars at Desmond Tutu House. I remember going to the wake at the local Mosque, to pay my respects to his family. George was there, and was clearly hurting. He had even considered cancelling the campaign. It was Abu Bakr's wife Kauser, who urged everyone to carry on - to make Galloways election a tribute to her husband. And so it was to be. I was at the Respect HQ with Sarah Cartin when the news of the huge victory became known. It was a momentous occasion, and my blog about the reason people abandoned the big three parties became the most read piece I had ever written, partly because the then Chair of Respect, the wonderful Salma Yaqoob kept retweeting my blogs on the subject.

The retweeting caused mayhem in April as Salma helped make my April fool blog, (suggesting Galloway was turning the much loved Odeon building into a 'Turkish bath and mosque') become the biggest scam I had ever orchestrated. I was on a high.

April was a great month. Our church organised a very special foot washing service in the new mirror pool for Maundy Thursday, and Bradford felt like it was sending me off with a terrific high.

Later in the month, I was to have an interview with Sunderland University for the post of Chaplain. When I went to have a wander around the city before the interview, something wonderful happened. I had never been to the place before, but something deep inside felt absolutely right. I finally felt that God was actively working alongside me on the next stage of the journey.

All would be well, I simply had to have a little trust and a little faith. Surely not too much to ask from a priest!

Preaching on 'The Magnificat' (Mary's radical song)

Advent Sermon based on the Magnificat, preached 10am; 23rd Dec 2012 in Sunderland Minster:

My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
Because he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid;
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
Because he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name;
And his mercy is from generation to generation
on those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm,
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has given help to Israel, his servant, mindful of his mercy
Even as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.


In a few short days it will be Christmas itself – not Advent, the season of waiting, but the big day where we focus on the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus. The Incarnation simply means; God becoming one of us, so that we are completely and utterly connected to God. No more is God a big thing up there or out there – but intimately, God becomes one of us.

And the passage we have just heard from Luke, makes it all a bit clearer how that actually happens. You know the old saying, behind every God Man, is an amazing woman – and here in Luke chapter 1 v 39-56, we have the scriptural evidence.

We have this coming together of these two great women, Elizabeth and Mary, at the time when God is being knitted together in the womb – both women are going to help bring up extraordinary people who will change the face of the earth.

Elizabeth, has already had the strange story of thinking that she wouldn't ever have kids, then suddenly becoming a mum late on in life. We know that she is a righteous woman, blameless, and that she is the one who perhaps most powerfully shapes the person of John the Baptist. John becomes the great revolutionary from the desert, who challenges the people with power and begins saying ground breaking things like 'whoever has two coats must give to the one who has none, and whoever has bread must share it with those who go without'. Behind John is his mother Elizabeth, with her trust in the Lord and her absolute love for God.

Mary and Elizabeth meet up and spend 3 months together. Mary, is quite obviously an incredible woman. I'm not interested in 'Mary' the woman of myth, depicted in such a saintly, virginal way in certain art and literature. I'm fascinated by the real, down to earth Mary who recognises that God is at work in her life, and then strives to do the best she can. A woman who may well have  had to bring up most of her children on her own, as her husband Joseph simply disappears from the story. According to some stories, Joseph was killed by the Roman's, as were thousands of his country folk at the hands of the occupying army.

And here in 'the Magnificat', in this most extraordinary of songs (the church calls them canticles because it needs a fancy name for everything) in this great song, we get some incredible hints at who this woman was, and what she really was about;

“My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in the Lord my Saviour”

Firstly we see that she is a great poet and mystic, these are intensely beautiful words, timeless and wonderful. She is a woman of great joy and she knows that God is at work in her and she rejoices. Her very being is one that tells of the great goodness of God, her very soul magnifies the Lord, she makes him known in the world and she rejoices in that.

We also know that she was someone who spent time listening to scripture and the holy words of her faith – she knows her traditions well – this song is based on the song of Hannah, the mother of Samuel – and she sings it to Elizabeth, knowing full well that it is also the story of another woman who didn't think she would have a child, but then goes on to be honoured by God with the responsibility of bringing up a great leader.

Mary is also a wise scholar. She adapts scripture to make sense of her situation, she updates it. This is not a copy of Hannah's song, but a modern retelling of it. Over the years, she will help Jesus to make sense of his traditions but help him to not be a slave to it, something that we all desperately need to be able to do!

In the song, we also see her humility as she talks of the lowliness of herself as his servant. She is humble, but not passive, she recognising that God has done amazing things for her and for all the 'lowly ones' of history.

Then we see the revolutionary words of a peasant women 2000 year ago. She reveals that God is the one who has brought down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.

So from the very start of Jesus life – he is exposed to the radical teachings of this woman, who knows what life is really about, and will sing to Jesus radical songs as he grows, keeping him on the straight and narrow path of God's justice and peace.

Jesus knows from the very start that society is an unfair place, that it does not reveal the way that God wants the world to be. Hence his life is spent calling for revolution, repentance, a turning from the ways of this world and then building God's kingdom, where there will no hungry people any more, and an end to inequalities.

I think we often fall into the trap of believing that Jesus was born with super human powers, and that he already had within him the memories of the beginning of the universe and even the knowledge of the end of it. I don't think that that is what an incarnational God is all about. Jesus, has to grow up, has to learn wisdom, scripture, humility and what it is that God needs of him. And Mary is the one who does it.

It is up to each of us as parents, each of us as educators who deal with children, who have this great responsibility of bringing God into this world, one child at a time.

It is perhaps because of this that we feel the suffering of the parents of the 20 children of Sandy Hook Elementary School who were so brutally slain. We give thanks to the brave 6 women who died trying to protect these little ones. Dawn Hochsprung, the head teacher who rushed to the scene and tried to stop this man slaughtering the innocents. When the shooting started, it was another saintly Mary that jumped in to care for the little ones. The school psychologist, Mary Sherlach, ran to the scene and tried to rush the man with the gun, and died in a hail of bullets. She was a dedicated educator driven by her faith. Her husband William told the media “she considered what she was doing to be God's work – that is all you need to know about her.”

Our duty is to bring up our children and the children around us in a way that constantly reminds us that God's love is the only reason for our existence, and that everything in our bodies must yearn for God's kingdom of love, despite the horrors of this world. Mary Sherlach was willing to give her life for that belief.

The 'Magnificat' will help us to do this. We should long to be poets and mystics who rejoice in our souls, and tell of Gods love for us, and do so with humility and dedication. We should not shirk from saying that God is about changing this world completely. It must turn away from being a place of greed and hunger, where violence rains down on the little ones in Syria, in Pakistan, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We must stop being nations that run by the strength of the barrel of a gun and put an end to a world where powerful people can do as they please.

This Christmas it all ends. Instead, we must turn to a God whose power is demonstrated not with a sword or a gun, but through a child, born in poverty, and raised by the radical songs and wisdom of a peasant woman 2000 years ago.

Monday, 17 December 2012

The United States is addicted to guns, and there is only one cure...

There is a sickness at the heart of the United States of America. As we watch the disturbing pictures of the killing spree in Newtown Connecticut, it is hard not to cry. As a parent of two young children, the thought of such a terrible ending to such innocent lives is almost too unbearable to cope with.

Yet despite the choked up reaction of Barack Obama, and the rhetoric that 'words are not enough', it is hard to imagine anything much changing in the US. They have more Gun stores than branches of McDonald's. They sold over 2 million guns in November 2012 alone. There are almost as many legal firearms as people in the US (311 million people)

The gun carrying culture is enshrined in their constitution, and, perhaps even worse, is entrenched in the US psyche. And as the incredible 'Bowling for Columbine' documentary by Michael Moore tries to show, the problem is so much deeper than just a few disaffected kids who have watched too many violent video games. US society and internal/foreign policy has been based around killing and destroying for well over 150 years. It is no wonder that they as a nation have been involved in or have been responsible for more wars than any other nation since 1900.

The US government is seemingly addicted to war, and while that continues, then the belief in the importance of 'bearing arms' will forever be part of the 'American way of life'.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Even the biggest drug/alcohol/gambling addict has an opportunity to change. The answer is almost always a total cessation. For an addict - there cannot be a partial 'cut down'. So if we see gun ownership as an addiction, the answer is not to 'tinker' around with minor gun control. There needs to be a full reversal of gun policy - heading towards  a virtual zero tolerance of weapons of mass destruction being in the hands of any citizen.

It is unlikely that Obama will have the wisdom or the power to make such a stand. He is having to deal with the first major block to any addict making a serious attempt at recovery: Denial.

Friday, 14 December 2012

The CofE must embrace same sex marriage

The government has played a very clever card. On the back of the the widespread public distaste at the failure of the Church of England to pass legislation on women bishops, it is now seeking to appease its own members who are opposed to gay marriage, by stopping the C of E from ever conducting such marriages. This helps them pass the legislation by keeping ultra Conservatives happy, whilst putting the blame squarely at the feet of the already unpopular C of E institution.

This is a terrible blow to all of us who are pushing for the opportunity to be able to perform same sex marriages within the Anglican tradition.

I had hoped that the legislation coming might lead to that eventuality. It seems correct to allow churches to make up their own minds, even if the process seems tortuous. I can cope with the fact that Quakers and Methodists are quicker of the mark on social justice issues, mostly because they 'pave the way' and make it easier for the larger denominations to eventually catch up.

The proposed legislation though, would never allow us to 'catch up' with our more progressive friends. It would be 'illegal' for us to ever perform same sex marriages, despite the fact that nearly 45% of clergy are not opposed to the idea.

It would eventually lead some of us to 'push the bouondaries' of the law and risk losing our jobs, or even facing convictions. This is truly absurd, and needs to be resisted by all, regardless of their position on gay marriages.

To exempt the Churches of England and Wales from the possibility of opting to perform same sex marriages will just lead to many of us eventually leaving for more progressive Anglican shores, or joining other denominations. This is crazy. I am an Anglican priest. I am proud of the fact that the Holy Spirit has moved in our Church and helped us to move from positions of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.

It does take time, and the move to ordain female bishops shows these frustrations. Change though is possible, and we will see female bishops in 2/3 years. We cannot allow this government use legislation to stop the Church of England from ever allowing some of it's diocese's, parishes or clergy to endorse same sex marriage.

I hope that those in the leadership of the C of E will recognise that their position must change. Otherwise we will lose another generation, as our institution looks more and more irrelevant and unkind. It does not bode well for us that the 'nasty party' can easily pass us off as the 'nasty church'.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Why we should boycott Starbucks despite their 'kind offer' to pay some taxes.

How very nice of Starbucks to offer to pay some money to make up for the fact that they are an evil tax evading corporation. I guess £20 million is something, considering that they allege to have made a loss for the last 14 out of 15 years trading. Oh, and apparently, despite a turn over of nearly £400 million last year - they didn't pay a penny in tax over the 12 months of trading (nor have they for the last 3 years)

In fact, they have only paid just over £8 million in corporation tax over the last 15 years. By some estimates, they have managed to avoid almost £300 million in taxes over that period, so the offer of £20 million over the next 2 years is peanuts. If I were to offer to voluntarily pay under 10% of the tax I owe - then I would soon be on the way to prison.

Corporations such as Starbucks, Amazon, Boots, Barclays, Topshop, Tesco and Google seem to be getting away with murder. Murder? Well, because these big boys find ways of not paying taxes, and their friends in the ConDem free market party aren't doing much about it, then it is the poor who are paying the price - sometimes with their lives. If you cut spending on the Health service, then people die - especially poor people who have worse access to services already.

I recently had to step foot in a Starbucks. I was a guest at one of those churches who think a 'fresh expression' of church means meeting in a shop that denies access to unions for its staff, and happily avoids paying taxes. I was very courteous, but everyone kept offering to by me a drink, and I kept refusing. How can we condone their behaviour? How could any Christian or indeed any sane human being think that Starbucks behaviour is at all justifiable?

The answer is to boycott until they pay their corporation tax in full. (a measly 21% due to this governments Autumn budget, making the rich pay less whilst squeezing the poor) This payment should include back pay in taxes for the last 15 years.

The Tory argument, is that if you force them to pay their taxes, then they may go and do their business else where. Good, let them go. it might make more space for smaller, local and ethical coffee shops. Ones that are more likely to pay their taxes and employ more people.

UK Uncut are planning a day to highlight Starbucks tax avoidance this coming Saturday. It is perhaps why Starbucks have eventually made this very public offer to pay some tax at last. I'll certainly be looking out for my nearest expression of disgust at these moral criminals. Let's protest at these outrages and boycott Starbucks along with the rest of these greedy corporations, until there is some tax justice!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Remembrance Day blues

Watching the events over the last week or so unfold have reminded me why I hate what has become of Remembrance Day: The virtually one sided slaughter in Gaza (130 Palestinians and 3 Israelis dead): The failure of UN peacekeepers to prevent horror in the Democratic Republic of Congo: In Durham Cathedral, another funeral of a British soldier dying needlessly in Afghanistan.

War is wrong, war is never a solution. The red poppy, which I cherished as a child, taught me to remember the dead of 2 world wars, in the hope that the horror would never happen again. Since the Iraq war, increasingly, it has taken on a more sinister role, and as become somehow connected to patriotism and a glorification of current conflicts.

In Sunderland, which holds the biggest remembrance day parade outside of London, my decision to wear a white poppy was met with shouts on the streets, even though I wore it with a red poppy intertwined.  The Military flyby at 11am was met by gasps of joy from the crowds, but I couldn't help but feel the terror of those being bombed by such jets around the world.

The white poppy has been around since 1933. It is a symbol that says that we need to strive for peace, not glorify war. In the age of relentless bombing of civilians in Gaza, and of butchering in 22 wars around the world - it is imperative that we all work for peace and put behind us the symbols of war. We need to reclaim the red poppy as a true act of remembrance - never again should we endorse the evils of war. We also need to assert the white poppy, so that we all oppose conflicts, and oppose all those who profit from such conflicts.

White and Red worn together should not be a problem for Sunderland. After all, the city's footballers model on the fields of honour every week!

Supporting the NUS demo for free and fair education!

The impact of the fees increase is obvious for all to see. Mature students are priced out. Poor students are discriminated against. Everyone loses from the uncertainty that universities are faced with. At my university, there is a growing stream of students needing financial support, or feeling terrified by the debts they are amassing.

To get to a London demo from the city of Sunderland is not an easy journey. We are leaving at 3.30am to make sure we arrive in time. I feel far too old for these kinds of shenanigans! But we cannot let this government feel they can get off the hook. They have destroyed any vestige of fairness in higher education, and have created a debt timebomb which will ruin the lives of millions of people.

The Labour Party cannot just complain - they have colluded and allowed this to happen. As for the LibDems, well, they are beyond contempt at the way they have let down students. With all of the political parties being responsible for the problem, we must take to the streets, we must lobby our MPs and force the parties to take education seriously again. I'm dreading the coach journey down, but I cannot sleep well in my bed when there is such a need for a shout for justice.

Come and join me!

The C of E has failed to stand up to sexism in its ranks.

The decision to deny women the right to be bishops is a horrific blow to the Church of England. It is a cruel and even harsher blow to the gifted women in the Church. For 20 years women have been changing the structures of the Church of England from within, doing a remarkable job despite structures that have often devalued them.

The ordination of women to the priesthood has been simply the best thing that has happened to Anglicanism in the last 400 years. Quite simply, it saved the church from irrelevance and terminal decline. But the legislation passed on the 11th November 1992 contained an awful mistake. It allowed a section of the church to exist without having to even experience the difference that women could make.

Most decent people outside the church are perhaps unaware that 'flying bishops' exist, and there are churches that forbid women from 'tainting' the altar by presiding at the Eucharist (bread and wine bit). The flawed legislation 20 years ago allowed Bishops to openly discriminate and refuse to ordain women.

Not dealing with the inherent sexism in these situations and theological stances, has allowed discrimination to be perpetuated and has ultimately got us into the mess we are in today.

Here is the good news; the backlash against this decision by decent people will mean that the days of the sexist church are numbered. Those in the 25% of Synod who have blocked the legislation will find it harder to be re-elected to synod as reaction in the dioceses becomes clear. It is also clear that the vast majority of Bishops and Clergy, and most of the laity want women bishops. Perhaps also it will see an end to bishops and archbishops trying to 'appease' sexists within the church. They are a blight amongst us - they will not compromise, they are entrenched sexists.

None of this will be a consolation to the first generation of women priests who are being denied the right to serve as bishops. This is also a terrible blow to those involved in mission, especially to all of us who are demanding that the Church be at the forefront of the battle for equality and fairness.

The church has to ask itself, is it better off without the sexists, or without women bishops? The answer is clear. For the sake of God's reign of justice and equality, let this be the last day the church panders to the sexists at the expense of the gifted women of God.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Hopes for the new Archbishop elect

Justin Welby came to Sunderland Minster for his first appointment following the announcement that he is to be the New Archbishop of Canterbury. It was quite a treat for us, and a real boost for the projects 'Sunderland Winter Night Shelter' and 'One for the Basket' Appeals which we were launching at the minster.

Superficially, he looks on paper to be the kind of Archbishop I might have some problems with: Eton educated, oil business financier; 'conservative' evangelical etc etc. But I have a sneaking suspicion that he is going to be a lot more promising than people imagine.

He is a genuinely good man with the ability to listen and to change his mind. He is also very funny. He came up to me at the Minster, shook my hand, and said with a big smile; 'I just want you to know Chris, I'm not leaving because you have arrived in the Diocese!'

In fact, I probably wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him. When some questions were raised about my appointment because I had been arrested on several demonstrations, a call to Justin made it clear that he backed priests who make such a stand out of conviction. I got this great job and permission to continue experimenting with liberation theology with the backing of Bishop Justin and Bishop Mark of Jarrow.

In note of this, I gave Justin a book about the life of Archbishop Romero, another Bishop who was though of as too conservative by radical priests upon his appointment in 1977. He went on to become one of the most inspirational and courageous archbishops ever. He never failed to speak out for the poor and against the human rights abuses he saw all around him in Central America. Archbishop Romero is the example par excellence of those who use their power and influence humbly but decisively  to work for the reign of God's love.

In the light of the sort of cuts that this government is imposing on our country, Justin Welby is going to have to face up to the challenge of increasing poverty coupled to an uncaring rich elite. Today in Sunderland, He chose to start off by supporting those who are practically engaged in acts of solidarity with the most vulnerable, whilst saying that reliance on food banks and homelessness should not be acceptable in the UK.

Let us prayerfully support Justin, and not jump to conclusions based on his past. He is capable, likable and prayerful - and I have a feeling he is going to pleasantly surprise many progressive people as well as more traditional churches in the years to come.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

"4 more years"

The first thing to do is to congratulate Barack Obama for his success. Let's face it, with the prospect of a dangerous right wing hawk such as Romney in the wings, we needed him to win.

If Romney had won, we would see an inevitable march towards war in Iran, and an Israeli State that would have increasingly felt able to bomb whomever it wanted. Romney would have taken us back to the right wing fundamentalism of the Bush era, and that would have had terrible Global consequences.

Now Obama is promising us that the 'best is yet to come' and we have reason to have scepticism about what that means. I remember the hope of the early days of his first victory; a vague hope of the elimination of nuclear weapons; the promise to close Guantanamo torture centre; an end to the 'mistakes' of the war on terror; a fairer economic climate favouring the poorer rather than the richer; greater emphasis on the environment.

On all of these counts, Obama failed to deliver. He could blame the Republican dominated Senate for some of it, but there was also a clear a failure of passion, and a collusion with the banking and military establishment that cannot be understated.

It had not taken long for my optimism on his election to die down. In Obama's first 100 days, more people were killed by his foreign policy decisions, than in the last 100 days of Bush's presidency. The excessive use of 'drone' technology did not live up to 'the hope for peace' that he talked about.

We expect more from Barack Obama, not out of naivety, but out of necessity. The world needs a different economic approach that genuinely tackles and transforms the evils of capitalism. The world needs all of us working for non-violence. The world needs us to turn from the environmentally destructive path that we are on.

As the most powerful nation on earth,The US needs to leads the way in all of those battles, and Barack Obama is going to have to do much more than just deliver a great victory speech.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Join the vigil against arms dealers at Church House this Thursday!

The prospect of an arms conference happening at Church House Conference Centre is absolutely horrific. Though I haven't the time to Blog in full - please read the blog below from Christianity Uncut website, and do join in with the Vigil on Thursday if you are anywhere near London!

Arms dealers to meet at Church House

On Thursday morning (1st November), Christians around the world will celebrate All Saints’ Day. Meanwhile, Church House – the administrative headquarters of the Church of England – will host a conference for arms dealers. They will discuss “future air power”, which is likely to involve a focus on remote-controlled drones.
The news has shocked, saddened and angered many Christians, both within the Church of England and beyond. The issue has been covered by the Independent, Church Times and Premier Christian Radio.
Act of witness
A group of Christians will gather outside Church House (in Westminster, London) from 7.45am. They will begin an act of prayer and witness at around 8.00am. It will last about half an hour, and take place while many of the arms dealers and other participants are entering the building. There are more details on Facebook.
The act of witness is backed by Christianity Uncut, Pax Christi, the Christian Network of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and Christian CND. It is open to all. The prayer will take an Anglican form, but Christians from other traditions, as well as non-Christians, are equally welcome.
Feeble excuses
There have been a number of inaccurate claims about the conference.
It has been claimed that the Church House Conference Centre is independent of Church House, and thus of the Church of England. We have investigated this and it is clear that it is a legal technicality. The conference centre is a wholly owned subsidiary company of Church House Corporation, whose president is the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Church of England’s spokesperson has now largely given up on this line of argument.
It has also been claimed that this is not really an arms dealers’ conference, as it has been booked by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) rather than by an arms company. However, RUSI is a very right-wing thinktank that lobbies in favour of the arms trade and high military spending.
The conference webpage lists several multinational arms companies as sponsors, many of which arm oppressive regimes that have turned weapons on their own people. They are all involved in the manufacture of drones.
Church House is relying on a distinction between a conference booked by an arms company and a conference of arms dealers booked by a pro-arms lobby group. This distinction is at best naive and at worst misleading.
Prayer and resistance
If you can’t join us on Thursday morning, please pray about the issues wherever you are. You can also phone or email the Church House Conference Centre and email the Archbishop of Canterbury as president of Church House Corporation. We encourage everyone to communicate nonviolently in a spirit of peaceful persuasion rather than personal abuse.
We applaud the Church of England for rejecting most investments in arms companies. Now they need to live up to the same values in the use of their buildings.
Another way
Chris Howson, a Church of England priest from Sunderland and member of Christianity Uncut, is among those to have criticised the conference. He says:
“The Church of England should endeavour to make a stand against all forms of warfare, especially those that dish out death and destruction from thousands of miles away. It should instead seek to offer nonviolent, faithful responses to global issues based of Christian teaching. When Jesus asked us to ‘love our enemies’ we can assume that he did not mean ‘drop bombs on gatherings of people that might contain some enemies’.
“If we as a church expect credibility and respect, then we must not associate ourselves with, or profit from, agents of death and destruction.”
Al Barrett, a Church of England priest in Birmingham, is another to have expressed his shock. He said:
“I find it utterly staggering and shameful that my denominational headquarters should be providing space to an event, sponsored by weapons manufacturers, promoting armed conflict. The fact that this is being done as a commercial relationship makes it no less offensive. If the Church has learnt anything from the past few years, it should surely be that Jesus is calling us to take sides, in our words, in our actions, in our business dealings: with the poor, with the peace-makers, with those who hunger and thirst for justice, and emphatically not with the rich, the powerful, and those who create and deploy weapons of mass destruction.
“If the Church wants to model the hospitality of Jesus, it should invite the conference delegates in, without accepting any payment, to sit and eat with those people of the poorest countries of our world who have been maimed, widowed and orphaned by the weapons these delegates have manufactured, traded and deployed.”

Monday, 22 October 2012

A Future For All

On Saturday over 150,000 people marched in London, Glasgow and Belfast to show our disgust at the policies of this current government.

All around us are examples of broken communities, cities, towns and rural areas where the Tory cuts are desperately hurting the people of this country. These policies are simply are not working, they are driving our economy deeper into recession, and they are hitting the most vulnerable hardest.

While cuts are forcing people into unemployment and uncertain futures, it seems that the super rich are still immune from the problems that they have caused. Individuals and corporations are still sitting on huge amounts of reserves, often residing in off shore tax havens. Profits are still high and boardroom salaries continue to leap even higher. Yet all the time, wages are being squeezed, jobs are lost and pensions cut. The public sector is experiencing billions of pounds of funding being hacked off it's budgets, yet at the same time billions are being lost in government income from those who can afford to evade their tax responsibilities.

This madness must end soon.

On my bit of the march, I got to hear first hand of one of the most despicable policies of this present government. I joined those walking behind a large banner made by current and former Remploy workers. Remploy allows 1000's of disabled people to work with dignity throughout the UK. Now their branches are being axed left right and centre, with 36 of their 54 factories due to close down, putting 1,500 of the most vulnerable people out of work.

I was always taught that a government should be judged on how treats its most vulnerable members. On this basis, this coalition is behaving appallingly, and it should be ashamed of itself.

But Cameron and Clegg carry on, and pretend they have the interests of all in their plans and policies. As I marched with the ex remploy workers, some in wheelchairs, some blind, some deaf, so many who have been contributing to society in the best way they can, I felt sickened by this government's lack of care and compassion.

We will continue to march, strike, organise and resist until this government is forced out of office - the sooner the better!

Monday, 8 October 2012

Hooray for Apple Day!

Just a quick word of encouragement to all involved in making this event one of the 'must do' experiences of the North.

The community orchard at the bottom of Bowling Park in Bradford hosts a thriving promotion of the humble apple at 'Harvest' time each year. It has grown bigger and better each year, with cider presses, chocolate apples, apple bobbing, and just about everything one can think about doing with an apple.

To taste a local, home grown piece of fruit, is to realise how mad and wasteful it is to buy bags of apples from our supermarkets from as far afield as New Zealand.

As with most things, with local produce, there is great taste as well as a reduction in the food miles that we so easily consume with our diet.

Congrats to all at Apple day, it seems to bring out the best in folk! Happy scrumping!

St Bedes's Way, in solidarity with the landless of India!

My feet are still aching - but it was worth it. A hundred or so people walked the 'St Bede's Way - to raise cash for Christian Aid and awareness for marchers in India who are walking for land rights in their country.

The walk is great, starting out at the Angle-Saxon tower of St Peter's Church in Sunderland, ambling down the coast to Whitburn, before heading over the Cleadon hills towards Jarrow. There was good company, and beautiful views of the sea and the local landscape.

At 'Bede's World' in Jarrow we were welcomed by singers performing traditional medieval plainsong. As much fun as it all was, it had a deep and powerful point. The blow is taken from the Christian Aid website:

This week saw 50-60,000 Indians, mainly dalits and tribal people, start the Jan Satyagraha march for land rights.
The march, which will cover 300km from Gwalior to Delhi, is the culmination of four years of planning and preparation by Christian Aid partner Ekta Parishad. Thousands more marchers are expected to join over the coming days and weeks as the march approaches Delhi.

The people's search for truth

Jan Satyagraha means 'the people's search for truth' and the march aims to give a voice to the poorest communities of India.
The main demands of this huge non-violent action are a new land reform policy, which would guarantee access to land and livelihood resources for all, regardless of wealth or caste, and a law establishing the right to shelter.

A government U-turn

It was hoped that the march was going to succeed even before its departure. In final two weeks of September, Ekta Parishad had numerous positive meetings with government officials and the Minister of Rural Development came to address the marchers on 2 October 2012 at the Mela Exhibition Ground in Gwalior.
As the minister left the stage, Ekta Parishad invited leaders and representatives from the different districts, tribes and social movements, to come together to discuss the government’s response. This discussion was broadcast live to the tens of thousands of marchers gathered so they could listen.
The general consensus was that the Minister's response fell short of expectations and was trying to buy the government more time. Therefore it was decided that the march should go ahead to keep the pressure on the government.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

All aboard the Tax Justice Bus!

The Tax Justice bus reaches Sunderland today, and will be outside the Minster from 11.30-2pm - if you are in the area, you must pop in.

This campaign, run jointly by Christian Aid and Church Action on Poverty is clearly the most crucial of our age.

As companies and individuals increasingly find ways to 'legitimately' avoid paying taxes, aided by their rich friends in government, it is the poor who are hit hardest. From the streets of the Philippines to the estates of Pennywell, it is those who have least who are suffer when healthcare and education services are cut because the rich do not pay there share.

As Osbourne boasts another £10 billion in benefits cuts to come in the UK, this is nothing compared to the hundreds of billions of lost income due to tax evasion. Globally, the rich are in power, and they want to spend as little as they can on the rest of us.

The tax justice movement is about rebuilding the case for the redistribution of wealth. It is about saying that rich companies can no longer make huge profits in poor nations, and fail to contribute something back to those societies. Tax justice means that those of us who have gained the most from our economies must be willing to make sure that everyone benefits from the wealth of a society, not just the few.

Most of my readers are thankfully not religious, but I hope all can appreciate the wisdom found in ancient scripture: 'Let those who have two coats share one with the person who has none, and those who have bread, share with the person who has none'

Tax Justice, the redistribution of wealth, is the hall mark of the fair and compassionate world that we all have a hand in building up. 

Victory in Venezuela

Hugo Chavez wins his fourth term as Venezuela president. Chavez has won after defeating right wing opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

Mr Chavez won 54% of the vote, the country's electoral council announced. Yet more proof that the majority of people of Venezuela support policies that are designed to reduce poverty and inequality.

When I was in South America this summer, an international report showed that Venezuela, Uruguay and Cuba had the most 'equal' economies in the region. The gap between the rich and poor has been heavily reduced by the social reforms of Chavez, and almost 8 million people have been lifted out of poverty by investments in healthcare, housing, job creation and education.

This socialist revolution has been fiercely attacked by the United States, not least by the short lived military coup backed by President Bush 10 years ago.

But the people have prevailed, and democracy has been resilient, despite US attempts to destroy the economy and portray Chavez as a dictator. Whilst there are still many issues to resolve, we should recognise this election as a sign of hope, not just for the people in Venezuela, but for an alternative model of development that brings greater equality to us all.

Friday, 28 September 2012

The first 10 years...

It started with a bang. 10 years ago, we were in our new house, with several friends staying over, and getting ready for my ordination the next day. At midnight, a huge explosion sounded somewhere on the estate. The next day, as I walked round the corner to the entrance to St Christopher's, the cause of the noise was clear. A burnt out car stood in the car park, surrounded by melted tarmac and blackened bricks. When the Bishop arrived, the only place left for him to park his BMW was beside the shell of the former vehicle. The look on his face was a picture.

The Holmewood estate was my first testing ground as a deacon and then priest, and it was a wonderful time.  Yes, there was poverty, break ins, concrete blocks through the windows and many other adventures, but there was also true community spirit and generosity of hearts. I learnt so much from Rev Gordon Dey, the saintly vicar of Tong and Holmewood parish - the worship was warm and relevant. The church truly served the community, and the congregation modelled sacrificial discipleship.

From that first curacy, great fun followed, and my next seven years as city centre priest in Bradford was extraordinary. The formation of SoulSpace, a church based on the principles of liberation theology was a huge breakthrough in the fresh expressions movement. The people I worked with over those years inspired me and gave me great hope for the church and for humanity.

There have been disappointments, not least the failure amongst some in the church hierarchy to value the achievements of Desmond Tutu House. However, on the whole, I look back on the last ten years with real thankfulness that the church is in good shape, and the holy spirit continues to be at work in the world.

In the next 10 years - lets see the wider church recognise the love in Gay marriages; let us see Christians rise up against global injustices such as the gap between rich and poor and the wastefulness of the arms trade. Let people of faith lead the way in challenging environmental destruction. Lets see the churches embracing co-operatism rather than competition. I want to play my part in these and other struggles over the coming decade. How about you?

Friday, 14 September 2012

Dear John Dear! Peace Activist extraodinaire!

Fr John Dear appeared in Sunderland last Thursday, part of his national tour following on from his successful Greenbelt talks.

It was great to meet him, as I had been following his writings and direct actions for many years. he has been such a personal source of inspiration - and here he was, speaking in my new city.

A Jesuit Priest from the US, Fr John Dear has known what costly discipleship is all about. Arrested 75 times for opposing war and nuclear weapons, he has faced horrific persecutions from both the state and from even inside his own church.

In 1992 he even spent 9 months in a tiny cell for striking a US Bomber with a hammer, and has been forbidden to teach at many Catholic colleges. He used to work on prisons with those on death row, but now, as a convicted felon, he cannot even do that anymore. (he tells a great story of getting Mother Theresa to ring up state governors about to approve capital punishment!)

Now he goes around the world and reminds people of the truth. We have a 'gospel of non-violence'. As Christians, we have a duty to share the news of a God who wants peace, not war. We must work with people of all faiths and none, to ensure the safety of people and planet.

His 5 points to live non-violently are now inspired on the front page of my diary:

1) Live contemplatively
2) Live non-violently, forgiving and loving all - friends and enemies, both near and far.
3) We must be students and teachers of non-violence, learning from Jesus, King, Gandhi.
4) We must be activists, being courageous in the face of a war-mongering and self destructive world
5) We must be prophets and visionaries of peace - believing that a better world is achievable

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Liberating the Chaplains

I attended a fantastic conference of Higher Education chaplains last week, down at the High Leighs Centre in Broxbourne, and was pleased by the character of many of my fellow chaplains.

When faced with the 'new model' of higher education - which is basically the commodification and marketisation of Universities, there was universal resistance.

Some one presented the new perspective from a Uni which had begun to follow the model. He quoted how the Uni had invested in the chaplaincy provision because he could demonstrate to the managers figures showing that it cost £65 per student to visit the counselling dept, but only £3.50 per person to see the chaplaincy.

If the chaplains had been a less polite bunch, he would have been booed of the stage!

Education is not a privilege, it is a human right. Its value to a society is immense, and cannot be so easily costed in terms of pounds and pence. Chaplains in general oppose the cuts to education services, and in particular, refuse models that call on us to be in competition with other HE institutions. Students are not simply 'customers'.

Chaplains are there to help the University value human worth, and continue the great tradition of education being a service to the local and wider society.

Chaplaincy is part of a liberating tradition, which encouraged students, staff and institutions to think far beyond commercial interests, and instead to help work for the common good and continually strive for a better world.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

The first day in Sunderland!

Amid the madness of unpacking boxes (there is a lot to be said for Buddhist and Christian philosophies of simplicity!) I managed to find time to do go and do two important things. The first was to find the local Credit Union offices, and register for joining.

It is of the utmost importance that we support a more just financial system. Put simply, our banking sector is corrupt and probably irredeemable in it its present form. Those of us who want to see a different way of life must find ways of putting our money where our mouths are. I bank with the co-op as the best and easiest 'ethical' option, but they are far from perfect. Much better to link up with Credit Unions, Shared Interest (providing credit for fairtrade and workers co-ops), Triodos bank and the Ecology Building Society.

The second important thing was to find a newsagent who was prepared to order the 'Morning Star' newspaper. The paper nearly closed last year due to financial pressures - most shops have to be pushed to get it, even though it is a normal 'sale or return' paper, and it doesn't cost them anything to stock it.

Just as in Bradford seven years ago, I traipsed round the newsagents and found that none stocked it, and some even wanted me to buy a months worth upfront before they would consider it! (that wouldn't happen for any other daily paper)

The Morning Star has stood for peace and socialism since the 1930's, and is now the only reliable way of finding out what is happening on the left in the UK and the world. It is small but perfectly formed - and I will endeavour to make sure it is on the shelves of shops in Sunderland! 

Now, back to unpacking, oh the joys of moving...

The Importance of Liberation Theology

Liberation theology is the tool for unlocking the potential of the church. When those of us who study scripture wake up to the simplicity of Jesus' teaching then it is our duty is to live them out with our lives. Jesus came to preach the gospel, the good news of God, and it was good news to the poor. It could not be any simpler, if we are to know God, then we are to do his will. He asks us to love our neighbour as ourselves, to pour out love on everyone. We are asked to be creatures of forgiveness and compassion, even to the point of loving our enemies.

The path to this point of enlightenment is one of prayerful simplicity, economic justice, radical non-violence, and co-existence with all of God's creation.  Though many 'theologies' consider parts of these solutions in their deliberations, it is liberation theology which is at the cutting edge of putting all this into practice.

Whenever I am teaching students of theology and those who are studying for some form of ministry, I am always struck by how many of them are instinctively living out this theology of liberation - working with the homeless, the poor or struggling for fairtrade or tax justice. Most of them are so relieved when they realise that they are already doing theology! They have been taught that theology is almost separate to their everyday lives and struggles, but the opposite is true. God is wrapped up in the contexts of our lives.

God is entwined into our world, and we need our theology to be as liberating as the teachings and life of his son Jesus Christ if it is to be worthy of God.

The last day in Bradford

I knew that my last day in Bradford was going to be emotionally and spiritually exhausting, so I started the day in pray, had a good breakfast, sorted out the kids and then set off with the removal men to finish packing up the books from the Liberation Theology Library at Desmond Tutu House.

I sat in the peace chapel, gave thanks for all the amazing people who had been in that room, from Nobel Peace prize winners to homeless working women. The stories this space could tell would fill a thousand books. Locking up the place for the last time, I felt elation, not loss. On the whole, it has been a good seven years. Even the battles with UKBA, local authorities, fascists or church authorities have produced their fruits. God is, so liberation theologians say, 'to be found in the struggle for life'.

I went over to the Student Union where I have had so many happy memories and said some goodbyes - then up to the peace studies department to give thanks for all the wonderful students and staff who I have worked with from there, and to offer a prayer for the current difficulties that the place is wrestling with. We need higher education to have places such as this department is we are to have any chance of moving forward as a society.

A dip in the pool to wash away regrets and frustrations, was followed by a prayer outside the Provident for economic justice (one of my first acts in Sunderland will be to join the credit union) then a prayer outside the ODEON for regeneration in the city that considers the will and needs of ordinary people.

I went and bought a copy of the Morning Star, a paper that alongside daily readings of the Bible, has sustained me in activism since I started receiving it in the Hive Housing Co-op off Manningham lane all those years ago.

Then the final act - to place a simple wooden cross on the window of the shop that sells killer crossbows in our city centre. We need to transform all places committed to violence with places committed to forgiveness, love and non-violence. I believe this is what Jesus was doing on the cross, refusing to meet violence with violence, but instead being prepared to die for a world of justice and kindness.

Sticking the cross on the shop window was a small act, but highly symbolic and emotionally charged. I hope that all who went to look at that weapon today would be struck by the comparison between the cross and the crossbow. Hope over violence. Love greater than evil.

Finally over to Goitstock waterfall, one of the natural beauty spots that have captured my heart in this city of so many surprises. I was caught in a glorious thunderstorm that left me soaking but exhilarated. Goodbye Bradford, and thankyou for all the amazing experiences, I will cherish them in my heart always.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

A word of thanks to Marsha Singh

Here in Uruguay, news drifted over the internet of the death last week of former Bradford West MP Marsha Singh. I knew he had been unwell for sometime (hence the by election resulting in the election of George Galloway earlier in the year) but few knew the advanced stage of his illness.

I always voted for him, despite my misgivings about the national and local Labour Party. This was due to his good nature, and the fact that he was a person of principle, not always found in the big parties.

He always helped out where he could, from Asylum Seeker issues to campaigns against Tuition Fees. My last  major dealings with him were when we were occupying the University administration offices over the announcement of £9,000 fees. He gave unhesitating support and good advice.

He stood firm against whip pressure to vote against Trident, and was one of the brave MPs to vote against Blair in the run up to the war in Iraq.

His record and involvement on education and health matters are impressive. A true socialist who pragmatically made a real difference to society. I was very sad when it became obvious that he would be standing down.

The pressures on him surely had their toll, but I always found him accessible and ready to help even when others claimed he had overstayed his welcome.

So a belated word of thanks to Marsha, and condolences to friends and family who will miss him greatly. The Labour Party has lost another 'man of the people'.

Let the toxic olympics begin!

So it begins. I don't wish to be killjoy, and I hope that millions of people worldwide will take much enjoyment from the coming Olympics, but in truth, the way these games have been organised has sickened me. The main reason is the continued official endorsement of uber sponsors 'Dow Chemicals', the toxic company which took over from Union Carbide in 2001. They inherit the responsibility for the the Bhopal Chemical Disaster which killed over 20,000 people in India.  The company has never faced up to its horrific legacy. It has never cleaned up or faced proper legal redress. Tens of thousands still live with the after effects of the largest chemical leak in history.

The Olympics organising committee has continued to endorse the company line that Dow has no legal responsibility, even after Meridith Alexander shock resignation as 'Ethics Tsar' for the Olympics over the matter earlier in the year.

Dow's involvement with the games is a toxic legacy, which the London Olympics will always be associated with.

The matter sharply highlights the fact the Olympics is now an over bloated affair which is more concerned about money than sport. Corporate sponsors have almost completely high jacked the endeavours made by the athletes who take part. The politics behind the Olympic site, the Torch sponsorship, the G4S scandal are all part of a world far away from the ideals that the games purport to represent.

The Olympics can now only serve one purpose, as a stark reminder that we as a society must protect ourselves from the self serving greed and power of the corporations and their apologists.

Enjoy the games, but lets not for forget the bigger prize, a world driven by compassion, not the corporate ambitions of sick companies such a Dow Chemicals.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Farewell Service

It was going to be a day of tears - pretty obvious with the Murray/Federer final coming up - but I had been determined to keep my last communion service at SoulSpace as upbeat as possible.

For nearly seven years I have delighted in taking part in this unique experiment. We mix the concepts of Liberation Theology and 'deep participation theory' and have evolved a wonderful liturgy that allows sermons to emerge from the community. More than that - it is simply fun. I have laughed and been thrilled in equal measure over the years.

My Children have been allowed to be themselves, and I have grown in faith through the friendship and wisdom of others.

But people grow not only through laughter, but also in shared pain, and so it was almost inevitable that tears began to flow. It is painful leaving a community of love, and as I encountered the words of Jesus at the last supper, waves of brokenness swept though me. It was so hard to say all the words, and I was heartened as we all began to say the words together.

The Eucharistic moment has always been the most powerful for me. We enter God's journey of being broken for others. Jesus is prepared to be beaten, tortured and killed to demonstrate that the roman occupation and its submissive client state do not have the final victory. Through the resurrection, God is victorious for all time.

Most of even our most mundane victories involve being broken along the way. For as we are reformed and healed, then new possibilities can take place. Resurrection is only possible through crucifixion.

My soul felt thanks to all who have journeyed with me over the last 7 years. May God help SoulSpace endure as a place of joy, of brokenness, and ultimately, as a place of healing and fresh hope.

10 years of love and support

On Friday 6th July, Cat and I celebrated 10 years of married life. To mark the occasion, we went to a Cathedral Ceilidh, and flung each other about for a couple of hours. We then went on to spend a night in the luxurious surroundings of the marvellous Midland Hotel right in the city centre. It was a wonderful evening (thanks to babysitters!)

How my wife has put up with me over the years I'll never fully understand. All I know, is that without her enduring love and support, most of my campaigning and activities would have come to nothing.

I guess this simply gives me a chance to say that I love the institution of marriage, I think it is a beautiful thing, and it should be open to all who find love. On the Saturday morning (7th) a petition was handed in to General Synod called 'Not in our name'. It simply is a plea that the Church of England should not be fighting against the right of Gay people to 'get married'. Marriage is for all who find love and want to express that love before God and before community.

Those of us who have the privilege of enjoying married life, need to work harder to make sure that it is available to all. It is a great gift from God, and should be available to all created in the image of God. As I have often stated, most clergy I have met are looking forward to the day when they can perform Gay marriages. Let us embrace a forward thinking theology that constantly includes, and doesn't automatically exclude.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

So Diamonds arn't forever!

The news of Bob Diamond's resignation this morning was almost inevitable - but it does not go far enough.

There has yet to be a single prosecution in the banking sector for the crimes committed against the people of this country.

Whilst working as a social worker, I would often despair as some of the young people I worked with would end up with custodial sentences for rediculously minor offences. Once I remember someone being sent to prison for nonpayment  of a fine imposed because they had shoplifted dog food for their pet.

How can it be that a bank (actually a network of banks) can operate a fraud that involves billions of pounds of money, and yet no one is held to account? The bank gets to pay a tiny fine of £390 million, which doesn't even go to the public purse! (the 'fine' goes to the FSA to pay for their running costs, which means that all the banks pay less the next year!)

Bob Diamond was the head of the investments wing of Barclays Bank when it committed such a fraud, and as such, criminal investigations should start with him. Instead, he gets away with estimated £100 million in earnings.

We cannot keep allowing these injustices to go unpunished, or those who are responsible for our banking sector will never realise that financial crimes of this scale should not be above the law.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Angela's 5th Birthday

What a special day! It began with a trip to 5 Alive (her favourite play park) and then she came to church. That may not sound so exciting, but the look on her face as we all sang Happy Birthday was priceless.

The SoulSpace community has been her upbringing for 5 years.  She has had a great start in life with the love she has received from the congregation since day one. Catriona and I have so much to thank everyone for - it is their communal kindness that has made our two daughters such wonders.

We all went for a giant picnic at Lister Park, and Angela was thrilled when the Olympic Torch came by! Great timing - though I wasn't able to get them to light her birthday cake candles with the actual torch - that would have made me super Dad!

I'm grateful to My Mum, Brother Lesley and cousin Callum for coming up from Addlestone, it made it all so special.

But ultimately, I'm grateful to God for surrounding our family with such love. Children are born not just into blood family, but into the communities we build around ourselves. The advantages of building such communities of people working for justice, peace and spiritual awareness is evident when I look the impact it has had on my two little girls.

Thank you everyone.

Liberation under threat in Paraguay!

The news this weekend that Fernando Lugo has been the victim of a Parliamentary coup in Paraguay is a terrible blow to the liberation struggle in South America.

He is known as the 'Priest of Paraguay', and was instrumental in overturning 61 years of rule by the rightwing Colarados (including the dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner from 1954-89)

This Liberation Theologian and former Catholic Bishop managed to win the 2008 Presidential elections in a stunning victory for the left. He had been a champion of the poor and indigenous population, and it was almost incredible that he could have won.

He was part of a tide of support for the left which has once again changed the face of Latin American politics, begun by the victory of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela ten years before. Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Honduras and even Peru elected Leftist leaders.

Many of these leaders were influenced by the Liberation Theology movement, but none more so than Lugo in Paraguay. He has faced continual opposition and threats from the right wing dominated Senate, and after a conflict flared up in the Chacos region leaving 17 dead including 9 police officers, Senators moved to impeach him.

The conflict was in regard to landless peasants occupying a disused piece of land, something Lugo had encouraged as a way of redistributing the wealth of the nation. Some 80% of land in Paraguay is owned by 5% of the population.

There have been violent clashes on the streets of the capital Asuncion, but Lugo has called for only peaceful resistance. But the poor of Paraguay have lost a great ally, and the country is back in the hands of non-democratic leaders. The coup leader is Lugo's former Vice-President Frederico Franco, who Lugo put in post as a gesture of unity to the right wing at the time of his election.

Will the world accept these events, or will they put pressure on Franco (an apt name) to return Lugo to his rightful elected place? Latin America is once again seeing the return of the right wing 'strong man', and history must warn to the disasters this will bring.

Refugee Week – A taste of heaven!

Over the last week, Bradfordians have celebrated the lives of refugees and asylum seekers who have come to live in our city, and there have been parties, music, dance and much merriment. This is not always the images that come to our mind when we think about the plight of refugees and those who are seeking sanctuary in our midst. We normally have images that are negative, either of their stories of escaping torture, persecution and conflict, or of the negative images often given to them by the media.


But the lives of refugees and sanctuary seekers (a more helpful term than 'asylum seekers') are often ones of triumph over adversity, and when we have close encounters with this community, there is much evidence of joy and happiness. They mainly come from places where faith is very strong, and they have trusted God with there lives and their futures – they know that God has walked with them.


It is this walk of faith and justice that was celebrated on Wednesday. BEACON (Bradford Ecumenical Asylum Seeker Concern) organised the third of its annual walks to Leeds Waterside Reporting Centre. The walk passes the Thornbury Tribunal Courts where thousands of sanctuary seekers have gone to argue their case before a judge. The walk continues to the canal, then on to the place in Leeds where sanctuary seekers have to report on a weekly or monthly basis.

The walk started as a protest of how some people were forced to make this long walk every week without any travel costs paid. However, now it is a chance to show solidarity with all those who have to face the long walk for justice, a journey towards hope and sanctuary.

This week, we can give thanks to God for our own security, for our homes, for the safety of our families. We can give thanks that we live in a society free of organised torture and political imprisonment. Refugee Week has given us a chance to be thankful for the many organisations in Bradford that exist to support those who have had to flee such horrors. We have much to learn from those who can escape such trials and still hold on to a rich and joyful faith.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Street Angels, faith in action!

Last night I did my last shift as a duty manager for Bradford Street Angels. It was quite a sacrifice, as I realised a few weeks ago that I would miss the England game against Sweden! But Street Angels is all about sacrifice - it is about giving up the comforts of being at home on a Friday and Saturday night, and choosing to serve your community instead.

The project has taught me a lot over the years, from the sheer dedication to the city shown by hundreds of ordinary folk, to having to deal with sometimes quite violent and shocking scenes.

I cannot say I've loved every moment. I'll never forget the night we helped pick up the pieces from a fatal road traffic accident, or the occasional vomiting over your shoes when your holding up a young man who is too drunk to be left alone on the streets

My overwhelming memories though, are of the times when we have perhaps saved lives by intervening just at the right moment. Getting young kids home who have had a bottle of Vodka for the first time. Pulling a woman out of the road before she is run over. Giving out a fresh sleeping bag to the homeless guy who's bedding is drenched from another downpour.

And the beauty of camaraderie between colleagues - I have walked the streets of Bradford with some of the best people I have ever had to work alongside.

I remember putting the team together exactly 5 years ago, bringing together those with a passion for the city, people who desired to show God's love in a practical way. There are costs and sacrifice in all ministry, and missing an England game is nothing to compared to the beauty of watching the kingdom of God grow before your very eyes.  

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

It's time to allow same sex marriage in the Church of England

When writing my book 'A Just Church' some folk said to me 'its OK to write about poverty, but why write about homosexuality?' The answer was clear to me. SoulSpace (Our local church in Bradford) is based on the notion that the Church needs to respond to areas of injustice and inequality. Gay Christians have faced massive discrimination within the wider church, and the persecution will only end when churches like SoulSpace stand alongside the LGBT community.

When the national church opposes legislation allowing for same sex marriage, it simply looks stupid and out of touch. But worse still, it is guilty of perpetuating injustice and failing to demonstrate God's love. Gay marriage is not a 'threat' to heterosexual marriage - if it is, then there are some severely insecure marriages out there.

Marriage is not simply about procreation. If so, the church should not marry those too old to have children or those medically unable to. Marriage is primarily about love.

Marriage is when two people declare their love for one another in the presence of God and this is witnessed by friends, family and the local community. The church is privileged to be able to solemnise weddings, but should not be allowed to abuse it's position of trust. We need to embrace those who find love, and apologise for the hurt we have caused in the past.

I know this situation will change. In my lifetime, the Church of England will allow those priests who are willing, to bless and marry same sex relationships in parish churches. We will look back at this period with shame, and we will regret the millions of people who will never have anything to do with the church because of its homophobic attitudes.

May God forgive the Church for it's refusal to endorse the love of others. Help us to grow in the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The big lunch without the flags...

On Monday we look forward to celebrating our 3rd 'Big Lunch' on Ashgrove, the road that Desmond Tutu House sits upon. It is a simple expression of community care, an attempt to knit neighbours together in a city that needs a sense of togetherness.

Polish, Pakistani, British, Russian, Lithuanian, Uruguayan and many more people with come out and share food together. A bouncy castle, a balloonist and a street entertainer will bring all the kids in the neighbourhood into a rare car free environment.

We do not need the monarchy for this to happen. I do hope that all those who are celebrating the Diamond Jubilee will get a real taste for this sort of event, and feel that they want to do it again and again. We do not need the anniversary of an outdated institution as an excuse for this to take place. We need to be doing it all the time. The bond on our street in not the Queen, it is a common need for people of different faiths and of no faith to come together and have some fun. We need royalist and republicans to mix. Christians and Muslims, anarchists and conservatives. We need spaces to grow together as people. But it cannot be under the banner of the celebration of the monarchy.

I'm sure that the queen is a very good person, and does her job in the best way that is perhaps possible. But the very idea of a monarchy should be discarded to the dustbin of history. As an institution, it enshrines inequality. It says that it is OK to be born into positions of power and wealth. None of us who want to see greater equality and hope for humanity can simply sit back and celebrate the Jubilee.

It's a Sunday, and in the Gospel story of the day Nicodemus, a person born into wealth and privilege, begins to learn from Jesus that it is not his birthright and background that counts. He, like all of us must be born again. This does not mean joining a 'happy clappy' club of Jesus freaks. It means abandoning the positions of status and power that this world offers, and instead welcoming in the reign of God, being born as 'children of God'. This is a new beginning in which our worth is not measured by what this world has given us, but is simply about being loved for who we are, created in the image of God.

Elizabeth and I are united by our faith, but divided by the trappings of this world. I pray for her on this day, but my prayer maybe different from the many said for her today. I ask her to renounce her position of power and privilege, to share all she has. It's for her own good. She shares the same sacred text as me, so she must have read that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle, than it is for a rich monarch to enter the kingdom of heaven?

Anyway, I must get back to party preparations. And before I forget, both Elizabeth and you are both very welcome to join us at the 'big lunch', celebrating neighbours coming together as equals.
 

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Occupying the Westfield site!

I was very impressed by the news of the occupation of the Westfield site yesterday and have enjoyed spending some time down at the camp over the Sunday. Essentially, after 10 years of delaying tactics by the Australian development company, Bradford people are saying 'enough is  enough'.

Westfield have got to commit themselves to this project. They have creamed off the big London sites, and have happily made a killing over the Olympics shopping mall, but now they have to support the North. Bradford is a great investment at the moment, especially as the new pool is packing people into the city centre for the first time in decades.

The occupier's have demanded meetings with those in the council responsible for the development, and want a statement from Westfield about when they intend to start work.

The occupy movement in West Yorkshire has really inspired activists in the area. After the city centre occupations in Bradford and Leeds, activists have taken the idea further and held very bold actions in places such as Menwith Hill. Now, people power is demanding action over jobs and development in Bradford's city centre, and the occupation of Westfield is a powerful step forward for the movement.

We will watch with interest to see how the authorities respond - in the meantime, get down to the site and show some support!

Friday, 18 May 2012

The power of stories of sanctuary

I had one of the most beautiful moments in my life yesterday, and I wanted to quickly share it. I was invited to a local secondary school, where a group of students were performing a play based on real life stories from people who had come to Bradford seeking sanctuary.

The play includes that of a man from the Congo that I had the privilege of meeting some years back, and whose story is told in my book 'A Just Church'.

The children were amazing, and clearly the learning of the script had been a powerful learning tool. They were enjoying the gifts of some great drama teachers, and singing music from the extraordinary John Froud (much loved by the kids!)

As they told the story, I could not help but cry - it brought back to me the night I met this particular sanctuary seeker, and my wife and I saw the scars on his back from the torture he had endured. I remembered his call to his wife, letting her know he was still alive (he had only just arrived having escaped from a prison) I remember his night spent in prayer.

Thank God for this project, going into schools and helping young people understand the journeys of those seeking sanctuary. Well done to BEACON and the Zephaniah Trust. Thank you to the young people who are retelling these stories. Thank you for making me cry, and reminding me of the importance of 'sanctuary'.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Blessing the Methodists!

It was my immense privilege to address the Convocation of the Methodist Diaconal Order last week - and many requested to hear the version of the 'beatitudes' that I used. It was written to remind us of how awful the world looks like, if we don't use the radical agenda of the original Beatitudes (Matthew chapter 5) in our mission and discipleship:


Blessed are the rich and over confident, for theirs is the world as it is today

Blessed are those who cause others to mourn, for arms dealers always live in comfort

Blessed are the strong and arrogant, for they shall dominate our institutions and inherit tax free savings.

Blessed are those who do not stand up to the oppressors, for theirs will be a nice quiet life

Blessed are those who show no mercy, for they will never have to say sorry for anything

Blessed are the hard of heart, for they have no need of God

Blessed are the warmongers, for they will be wined and dined in our National Galleries

Blessed are those that persecute others, for they will gain political power

Blessed are you when people speak highly of you, for you will have great dinner parties in Downing Street, in the same way that media moguls, billionaires and the powerful have always been celebrated.