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.