Tuesday 31 December 2013

The world in 2013

New Years eve is not just for looking ahead, but for looking back, and trying to learn from the highs and lows of the previous year. In the news, a few themes stood out for me, and here they are:

Syria. In 2013, the world's most serious conflict just got worse and worse, and the humanitarian disaster just keeps deepening. Much more needs to be done to create a peaceful solution, and it would be possible if Russia could be pushed into forcing Assad's hand. Pressure before the Winter Olympics is a possibility, but it would need a lot more political will. Despite the growing displacement of millions of people, it was also distressing to hear Britain saying it would not take in refugees from the situation. Assad's Government is happy to devastate huge sections of its country and starve entire cities. Islamic extremists are taking over the rubble, enforcing fundamentalist rules on a once liberal Islamic population. The only good news in 2013 was the dismantling of Assad's chemical weapons capability, and that the West did not make the situation worse by bombing Damascus. Syria needs our attention in 2014, the problem will not just disappear. As the 'Arab Spring' looks increasingly under attack in Egypt and throughout the Middle East - we need to support the brave voices of democracy and liberalism that are struggling to be heard.

Extremism. As Jeremy Scahill's documentary 'Dirty Wars' shows, we have successfully created 1000's more violent Muslim extremists by the violence of our interventions throughout the Islamic world. Since the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the killing of 1000's of innocents in drones strikes from Pakistan to Yemen, the West has managed to increase the threat of terrorism world wide. From bombings in Boston and Volgograd, to Supermarkets in Kenya, this has arguably been the worst year for terrorism since September 11th 2001. In Britain, 2 crazed fundamentalists tried to behead a British soldier, creating a flourish of attacks on innocent Muslims and on mosques throughout the country. The glimmer of hope was the decision of Tommy Robinson to expose the increasing racism and violent extremism of the EDL, bringing about the effective demise of both of them as a force in British politics. Oh, and we got rid of Di Canio here in Sunderland.

The Ghost of Thatcher. Thatcher's death did not see me celebrating, as her legacy continued to grow. 2013 saw increased attacks on the poor and on those surviving on benefits. We saw further privatisations and attacks on trade unions. In 'Food Bank' Britain, the gap between 'the haves and the have nots' increased throughout the year, especially within those forced to take on the growing number of low wage jobs on offer. Signs of Hope: Welby's attacks on banking culture and support for Credit Unions, Christian Aid's effective campaigning on Tax Justice (particularly at the G8) and the beginnings of the campaign renationalise the Energy companies. Much more needs to be done.

Surveillance Culture. Edward Snowden is definitely my man of the year (just pipping Pope Francis to the post!) who, despite knowing what the US will do to him, (poor old Bradley/Chelsea Manning) was willing to expose the full might of US and UK political and economic surveillance operation. From European Presidents to Unicef, from peace campaigners to anyone using the internet, we had proof of what we long suspected; nothing is private, we are all distrusted by our governments. In the UK, anti-drones protesters had their houses searched, and it came to light that family and friends of murdered Stephen Lawrence were monitored and, when needed, had their reputations smeared. Anti-racism campaigns were infiltrated by undercover police officers. In Russia things were worse, with the terrible incarceration of the Greenpeace 30. (Even their release along with the 2 brave women of 'Pussy Riot', was just politically expedient) To work for peace, or for human rights, or for racial justice, for environmental protection, all are treated as 'criminal' by our wayward states. Hope? Well, the exposure of these abuses of power at last gives credibility to our complaints, this might offer limited protection in the future.

There is so much more, and there are signs of hope all over. From people power in Brazil and Turkey to the way Venezuela resisted the attacks of the right wingers after Chavez's untimely death. For me as a priest, I am hopeful about the appointments of a new Pope and  the new Archbishop of Canterbury, both of whom are looking promising as listeners and reformers.

Let's learn from 2013 and get ready to work for a better 2014!

Monday 30 December 2013

Top films of 2013

A much better year for movies this year, despite being annoyingly lured in to watch the appalling 'After Earth' and Tom Cruise turkey 'Oblivion'. I do enjoy the big screen blockbusters occasionally, but special effects are not everything, as last years 'Prometheus' proved effortlessly.

But if I'm going to watch something on the big screen I expect to be treated to great cinematography and decent special effects, along with good story telling. This was achieved most notably by 'Cloud Atlas' a spectacular attempt to do the impossible, to film David Mitchells brilliant book of the same name. It is perfect for the big screen, and is one of the few films that is rewarded by efforts to rewatch it. In all, definitely the cinema experience of 2013

In second place came 'Gravity' for the sheer ingenuity of the direction and energy of the production. A ridiculous story, masterfully told, it conveyed a real passion for life and for living in the moment. The effects alone encouraged me to see it twice at the cinema, though I am never convinced by the 3D effects (with the exception of Imax, the effect doesn't really work for me, is it my colour blind eyes?)

For world cinema, I thoroughly enjoyed 'No', the Chilean film about the 'ad' campaign to oust Pinochet from power. Utterly compelling and honest cinema.

They are my top three, (just pipping 'Elysium' due to its pointless excessive violence and poor ending) but I also thought that it was a good year for sequels. If you were put off by the disappointing first parts of the 'The Hunger Games' and 'The Hobbit', I would recommend dragging your yourselves to see 'Catching Fire' and 'The Desolation of Smaug' - both better told and better entertainment then their predecessors.

Top Documentary was 'Dirty Wars', exposing the madness and counterproductive nature of US secret military operations world wide. Sobering and brave film making at its best.

Our Friday film club at the Chaplaincy has been a real treat this year, and I am always heartened to hear how films have changed and challenged perspectives. Got any good recommendations? (yes, I know I should have managed to see Philomena...)

Monday 23 December 2013

Highlights of 2013

Its been a bumper year of experiences for me, but it's always fun to try and look back and pick out my own personal highlights! Here's a top ten!

1) Ashing of Starbucks.

In protest of their refusal to pay a proper rate of tax in the UK, and as a reminder that the corporations need to repent of their ways as much as the rest of us, A small group of us went from the Sunderland Minster Ash Wednesday service and proceeded to make a sign of the cross on a Starbucks window. This was significant for a number of reasons, not least because I felt I had finally 'found my feet' in my new city, and was confident enough to engage again in acts of 'prophetic protest'.

2) Trip to Taize

The Spiritual core of my year was my first ever trip to Taize. This remarkable community of hope, set in the beauty of Western France, proved to be a fantastic spiritual tonic for the soul. I wept tears of relief and joy during the powerful services of songs and Eucharist, and I shared tears of laughter with the wonderful group that I travelled with. If you are in need of spiritual 'pick me up' or need to remind yourself of why having a Christian faith is so beautiful, then head to the French hills for a week!

3) Exorcism at Excel

The courage of the protesters at Excel amazed me this year. Every 2 years, the people who brought you internal repression and warfare through out the world, gather together to see who can sell the biggest and best killing equipment possible. And every two years, those of us who believe that humanity can do better than this, gather to oppose them. This year included an 'Exorcism against greed and militarism' which blocked the entrance to the exhibition as they tried to unload tanks and gunships. It was deeply moving a well as an effective way to mark our opposition to the trade of destruction. Solidarity to all who got arrested and are up in court in the new year

4) Yurt in the Minster

I have far too many ideas for my own good, and most thankfully disappear in the tide of reality. But this one worked! We wanted a space for students and the local community to gather, share stories, pray, meditate, have fun - and I had experienced a 'Yurt' at work during my Bradford years. I managed to secure funding and an excellent builder. (Paul Spencer of Highland Yurts) First we had the Mongolian round tent in the centre of the Minster for Holy Week during Easter, and now we have a permanent smaller one fitting snugly in the South Transept. It can also be used for schools and community projects during the summer months. It is great for hosting 'SPACE' our Sunday evening service based on the principles of 'liberation theology'. Come and see!

5) Feast at Greenbelt

FEAST is our new family worship based at the Minster at 11.15am on Sundays, and allows all ages to worship God in a fun, creative and spiritual way. All our family love it and its great going together each week. Some of us who are involved did a sample service in Greenbelt Christian festival, mixing elements from liberation theology, story telling and the worship music of 'Hyldas', a band influenced by Northumbrian Spirituality. Sublime. Good luck to Greenbelt as it moves to its new home.

6) The Unthanks in Sunderland

It was definitely one of my highlights to convince 'The Unthanks' to perform in the Minster. They are Geordies at heart, so it was the first time they'd played a proper gig in Sunderland. Music to the ears!

7) Pop Recs Ltd in Fawcett Street

'Frankie and the Heartstrings' are a liberation theologians dream. A politically progressive band with a heart for their locality, willing to invest in the local community. So Frankie and the gang set up a coffee shop, drop in centre and record shop in the heart of the city, putting on free gigs most weeks of local and national talent. It doesn't get much better than this.

8) Lindisfarne Legacy Exhibition

As well as giving me the chance to meet the super cool Dr Michelle Brown, the world's leading expert on the Lindisfarne Gospels (she compared St Cuthbert to the 'occupy' movement) - this gave me a chance to show how Sunderland has with the birth of multi-culturalism through our connections to the Illustrated Gospels, Islam and Coptic Egypt. Still on in January 2014, this is a real treat - and unlike the Durham version, you can see all the pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels, see their inspiration on the local community and to top it all - its free!

9) Interfaith Walk of Friendship

Not once but twice in 2013, we walked between the Minster, a mosque, a Gurdwara, a Buddhist Temple and various churches in the city. It was a real highlight because Sunderland is new to the wonders of good interfaith work, and for me, it was a great antidote to the fascist hate campaign against the opening of a new mosque in the area. Goodness always prevails!

10) Two trips to Ireland

Went on a great family holiday to Ireland, which included seeing all our friends in Sligo, seeing the Giant's Causeway, and meeting the good folk at the Corrymeela Community. Only a few weeks later, I was privileged to accompany several Tax Justice campaigners on a Christian Aid protest to mark the G8 gathering in Northern Ireland. It was a pity to be so far from the actual summit in Enniskillen, but it was good to show to the world that Belfast can hold big and peaceful protest events (and always could, but our media never showed that side of NI life)

It was hard to name a top ten, as it has been a busy and eventful year indeed, with protests at Menwith Hill in support of Edward Snowdon, campaigning at Faslane over money being spent on nuclear weapons, Anti-cuts campaigns, Successful demo's against the EDL in Bradford, not to mention successfully ousting the Fascist DiCanio from his job as head coach at SAFC. I've also enjoyed speaking engagements at the CND conference, the SCM 'Seeds of Liberation' gathering, the Christian Social Workers Federation, the Sea of Faith Conference; Not only is it great to share the story of a God who liberates, but its wonderful to meet so many people who remind me that the path to the reign of God is a joyful and communal one.

The real highlights are of course also about those close to us, and a great birthday weekend with Cat in September is a cherished memory, as is a great summer of family trips discovering places like 'Cragside House' and the wonderful coves of the Sunderland coastline. Thanks also to old friends who came to stay with us in our new home, and helped make such an enormous transition possible.

I give thanks to Cat and the kids who keep loving me and encouraging me when I encounter hurdles or make mistakes. I give thanks to God for this time on earth, and the opportunity to see where love and justice already reign in peoples hearts.

3 greatest TV series of 2013!

Its the time of year for frivolities and looking back - and I am thankful for the light relief that TV can give in the busyness of life. So here it is, my top three TV series of 2013:

In third place must be 'Strictly' - not everyones cup of tea, but for me, the hours of pleasure that my children get from it knocks my own selfish enjoyment of Misfits, Borgen and the Walking Dead clean of the leader board. Curled up with Clara and Angela on the sofa as we watched Sophie, Mark and Abbey swirl an strut their stuff, great memories indeed!

In second place is the final series of 'Ripper Street', where I just thought that the acting was superb and the subject matter gripping and thought provoking. As much as I enjoyed the 'White Queen' - this is history from the point of view of the people, and much more fascinating as a result.

Top of the list by far is 'Parks and Recreation'. This show has made me laugh so much this year, and has given Cat and I such enjoyment after long days at work, that it has to be number one. Who would of thought that a show about public administrators in a small US town would turn out so good? The characterisation is pitch perfect and the show just seems to get better and better. Hunt out the box sets if you haven't yet caught it on TV yet.

What did you enjoy in 2013? 

Chavez, Mandela and Thatcher - the deaths in 2013

2013 saw the passing of some of the world's most notable people, including Peter O'toole, James Gandolfini, David Frost and Lou Reed. However, it is the deaths of three politicians that history will ultimately be concerned with: Thatcher, Mandela and Chavez.

Thatcher's death was a celebration to many, but not so for me. Her legacy of privatisation and individualism is now so prevalent in society, that it hardly feels that she is gone at all. It is hard to 'party' at a old woman's grave, when her ideals and policies are still destroying lives throughout the world. Her legacy is one that we have yet to bury.

Mandela's legacy will also be enduring, but for much nobler reasons. He stood for justice and hope, and was a freedom fighter till the last. Unlike Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Bonhoeffer, Romero, Che, Jara - finally we have a great hero who was prepared to die for the cause - but ended up an old and happy man! I am convinced that his life will give people throughout the world inspiration for thousands of years to come. Long live Madiba!

Hugo Chavez also turned the tide of history, during 14 years as president of Venezuela, he not only brought millions of people out of poverty in his own country, but he managed to rebuild the socialist project throughout almost the whole of Latin America - something that his hero Simon Bolivar would be proud of. Though attacked by the capitalist media at home and abroad, his charisma and achievements in life will have a lasting impact on world history.

All three, in both good ways and bad, had a huge impact on my life and political development. Two were lives of progressive stands on behalf of humanity and will be celebrated forever. The other, I hope, will eventually be consigned to the dustbin of horrible histories.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Amandla! Awethu!

I've been slow to write something about Madiba's passing partly because of the busyness of being a priest at Christmas, but also because all the tributes to Nelson Mandela have been overwhelming, and I have been content to join in the celebrations instead of adding more into the mix.

But tonight at Sunderland Minster we will be having the city's 'official' celebration, and I just wanted to say a quick word about Mandela's legacy.

The real celebrations have already taken place. On the Sunday after Mandela's death, we watched a film called 'Amandla' - a documentary about the music and musicians who carried the revolution along. The film drew together members of the South African community here in Sunderland, and after the singing and the tears and laughter - people shared their memories of the struggle - of running guns for the military wing of the ANC, of visiting the graves of family members killed by the state, and of organising the first free elections in 1994.

It was a wonderful evening, and the following Saturday we organised a time of singing and dancing in the streets - it was also fantastic. Mandela touched the lives of billions of people, and so many people in the street were touched the outpouring of respect and joy from the South Africans.

But here are two important things. One - millions are joining in the celebrations around the world who did nothing to support Mandela or the South African people during the years of struggle. The Conservative party actually condemned Mandela and the ANC to years more suffering by their refusal to join in sanctions and by labelling Mandela as a terrorist.

During this time, each of us must ask what are the current struggles that we are ignoring? What are we doing about Palestine, which former Archbishop Tutu labels a new 'Apartheid'?  How many of us are supporting other communities wrapped up in oppression due to the arms trade and other causes of human rights abuses?

Mandela's death and legacy invites us to take part in current struggles, and if it does not, then it is meaningless.

Second: Mandela's story is lived out in the people - and he avoided the cult of personality as much as was humanly possible. Mandela was a communist, and supported people's struggles. He was a lifelong friend of Fidel Castro, and his radical legacy must be held high. When we shout Amandla, and reply 'Awethu' - remember the strength of what you are saying - Amandla - Power! Awethu - TO THE PEOPLE!

Let us celebrate his legacy by working to share in the long journey to freedom for all God's people. 

Tuesday 3 December 2013

'Killer Coke' coming to a town near you

The streets of Sunderland were packed on Saturday - Christmas shoppers, a matinee at the Empire Theatre, an away match so everyone was in the city centre pub to watch the footie on the big screens - but this Saturday it was more jammed than ever.

The reason - the Coca Cola Truck was in town! 1000's of families queued for hours to have their pictures taken with the iconic truck and hope to get a free can of coke.

Or 'Killer-Coke' as many people have come to know it as, due to the human rights abuses associated with the company in Colombia and other places.

The idea that Christmas is about a big truck, with a picture on the side of Santa guzzling a sugary drink, is somehow a wonderful part of family life needs to be attacked and ridiculed. This truck epitomises the worst part of Capitalism and commercialism.

They say they are careful not to promote to under 12's - that it is the 'parent's' choice whether to give the free cans to the kids - but this is ridiculous, of course it is aimed at kids!

So log on to the company's website - see when the Killer Coke truck is at a town near you. Perhaps take down some leaflets about Coke's links to the murder of Trade Union families in Colombia, or how the company pollutes precious water supplies in India, or even it's period being the sponsors of the Hitler Youth. (Mark Thomas' excellent book 'Belching out the Devil' is a great guide to the real Coke company)

Perhaps you just want healthy children

Perhaps you want children to associate Christmas with the birth of Jesus and the coming of a time of justice and peace.

Who knows. Just don't let KillerCoke ruin the true meaning of Christmas in your community this year.


Monday 2 December 2013

Lindisfarne Exhibition is a real treat!

The new exhibition down at the University of Sunderland Design Centre is a real treat - do pop down before the 20th December. It may not be as grand as the wonderful event held earlier in the year at Durham, but we do feel it has some advantages:

Unlike the Durham exhibition - you can see ALL the pages of the Gospel!
Unlike the Durham one - it's free!

No queueing, no on line booking, just come and enjoy the story of the Gospel, (told by the world's most renowned Lindisfarne Gospel expert Prof Michelle Brown) see great art inspired by the Gospel, and see how the Gospels connect to the growing diversity of the City of Sunderland!

Here's a link to the University article on the exhibition


'Advent' column in the local paper:

O the joys of Advent! The Christmas Season is soon upon us, carols singing, present buying, Die Hard on the TV, are you ready for the fun? Before we get overwhelmed by the activities, now’s the time to remember what this season is all about. A recent survey by Spark FM showed that most people in Sunderland don’t associate Christmas with Jesus. Churches need to help people make Christmas a truly Christian affair – and this means having more fun – not less!
Advent means ‘arriving’ and anticipates the arrival of the second coming of Christ. Christians celebrate the arrival of the ‘Kingdom of God’; a world of peace, joy and love. This is not something in the far distance, this is for now, and is celebrated every time we bring peace to situations, give joy to our neighbours and show love to others. At Christmas, when we bring peace, joy and love, we are truly celebrating Jesus’ return into our midst.
To really celebrate Christmas, here’s a helpful list: 1) Worship more – find out about services in your local Church. If you have kids, go to a ‘Christingle’ to help them remember what Christmas is truly about. 2) Give more – I don’t mean on presents, I mean to a charity that is bringing the values of the kingdom to people who most need it. Give a sizable amount to a local hospice or Christian Aid. 3) Spend less on things, and spend more time with people – the real joy of Christmas is shared with our families, friends, but especially with those who might be lonely this Christmas. Give someone who needs it a big hug or an unexpected invite to a party!
Advent begins on Sunday Dec 1st, which is also World Aids Day. Why not pop into the Ivy House at 8pm, sing some Advent Carols and raise some money for both Aid’s Charities and Grace House Hospice? Let’s get Jesus back into Christmas by showing and sharing the Joy and love of our risen Christ!
Chris Howson
Sunderland Echo 30th Nov

Educating, Acting, Reflecting and Sustaining - Article for Magnet Magazine

Becoming agents for change 

Let me make an admission. I like change. I want change to happen. I think we all need to be ‘born again’ and made afresh. This is not borne out of some narrow charismatic evangelicalism, but from a strong commitment to the theology of liberation. For a liberationist, society needs to change. We see the world around us, and compare it to the vision of the ‘reign of God’, i.e. a place of justice, love and peace, then we know there is a long journey ahead.

Liberation Theology is deeply underpinned by the idea that God cares about the concrete situations that we live in. God deeply wants equality and fairness to be the marks of the reign of God, and expects all of creation to yearn for that too.

Most churches understand this, but find it hard to equate with purposeful activity. With massive global inequalities ever present, the threats associated with climate change, terrorism, warfare, and huge technological leaps to content with – it can be hard to keep your head above the waters of transition. Often it feels as if the church is bewildered by some of the issues it has to face up to. So how do we help our congregations and ourselves keep afloat? How do we avoid drowning in a sea of change?

‘EARS to hear
The EARS model, which I use in evaluating work on social issues, may be useful. EARS stands for ‘Educate’, ‘Act’, ‘Reflect’ and ‘Sustain’ and is based on the ‘Pastoral Model’ of Action and Reflection, with a couple of extra themes for it to make sense to us as a church.

The commonest reason for congregations not engaging with social issues around them is that they do not feel qualified to talk about the issues or do anything about them. People on the whole do not have the time and resources to do enough research into issues and so don’t feel they can engage with the subject matter.

Churches wanting to be involved in social change might work out how they educate their congregations to deal effectively and knowledgably with varying issues. Education covers a lot of ground, from organising film showings/debates to talking about issues during sermons or in house groups. Evidence suggests that although various campaign groups have endless materials for church groups to use, rarely do the information packs and sermon notes make it to a Sunday morning.

So the first test is this – is your church investing enough energy into educating the groups within its structure so that they feel enabled to tackle issues from ‘tax justice’ to ‘drones warfare’? Once the issue of education is tackled the next stage can begin.

Most churches can take an issue and learn about it, but the really interesting test is whether they are able to translate that discussion into practical action. It is one thing to learn about the issues facing refugees and those seeking sanctuary. It is quite another to open up English language classes or house destitute asylum seekers.

This is the purest test as to whether your church is able to deal with the changes it sees around it. Can it actually act to either bring change, or find a just solution to a problem?

Once your church has engaged in action, for instance an act of solidarity with the poor or the setting up of a food co-op, there is then the need to pray and reflect on what has been achieved or not achieved. The prayerful activist is prepared to change direction, to admit something is not working, to try and discern if the ‘act’ is helping or hindering real progress with a problem.

Is the Food Bank really challenging why the people are hungry? Is the debt advice work enabling the congregations to tackle the companies who are causing the debt, or are people continuing to ‘blame’ the person in debt for not having the skills to get out of their situation? Prayer and thought must go into our actions, or we could make matters worse.

If any campaign is worth doing, it needs to be sustained. If the Suffragettes had given up after the first ten years of struggle, then women would not have the vote today. Some campaigns are going to be long and full of frustrations and defeats. How does the Christian Church prepare people for that?

I always urge that campaigns are rooted in what is already going on in a place, and work alongside existing networks. If it is not, church members will burn out, and situations could deteriorate. If we want to work with disaffected youth, or Iraqi refugees, we have to be prepared for the long haul, working with partnerships and making sure that not too few people are doing the brunt of the work.

To reflect in your congregations:

Is your church one that empowers you to cope with the social issues around you? How could you contribute to educating yourself and others in your congregation?

What social issues affect your community? Can you as a community actually do something about it?

Find someone who can help you reflect on a current problem, prayerfully and with wisdom.

How can you sustain working alongside an issue which at times makes you angry or depressed?             
This method may or may not work for you in your situation, but I hope that you will at least use it to analyse whether your church is actively bringing about much needed change in your community.

Friday 29 November 2013

NPower's sickening job cuts announcements

NPower are owned by RWE, and German energy company who recently announced the axing of nearly 7,000 jobs across Europe. This despite make a profit of over 9 BILLION Euros last year.

In Britain, NPower made record profits last year, yet managed to announce an impending increase in domestic rates of up to 11%. Now, as part of the RWE 'restructuring' over 1460 jobs are to go, mostly in the North East, with 400 jobs alone going in my city, Sunderland.

Nothing shows the madness of Capitalism more than this: Record profits for NPower are resulting in increased fuel bills for ordinary people and massive job cuts for its staff.  Absolutely unbelievable.

I despise the way the 'big 6' energy firms have treated the people of this country, but my real anger is for a government that has done nothing to prevent this horrendous situation. Nearly 35,000 deaths last year were reported of people who couldn't heat their homes properly - heaven knows what the situation will be this coming year.

I will be changing from NPower over the coming months, and there needs to be some consumer fightback against these job cuts (announced just before Christmas for maximum evil points) but this cannot be left to the consumers to battle out against these energy companies.

Energy is too important to be left in the hands of these greedy and immoral private sector giants. Again I say - let us rebuild the case for renationalisation of energy supply and production. History must condemn the likes of NPower to the dustbin of failed privatisations. We cannot waste anymore energy on these bloodsuckers.

Why does Bob Crow drink herbal tea?

There has been a nasty attack on RMT General Secretary Bob Crow over the last few days, over the fact that he still lives in the same council house that he has always lived in, despite earning nearly £140,000 each year. I defend his right to stay in his home, and despise the attacks on him in the right wing press and by people who have probably never set foot in a council house.

This is simply an attack on Bob Crow because of his politics. He is part of 'the awkward squad' of union officials who over the last 10 years have been overwhelmingly elected by their unions to defend public sector ownership and the rights of working people. He is just a rare case who lives out his private life in concordance with this public life. 

Thatcherism has been so successful at destroying the public goodwill towards social housing that very few people understand Bob's argument. He understands that council housing, under Housing Minister Bevan especially, was a plan that 'Working people, Doctors and Clergymen' (Bevan's noninclusive language, not mine) should live side by side. It was an attempt to do away with class division, not just be a way to house the poor and those who service the rich. It was an attempt to replace the dependency on vicious private landlords who grew rich off the poor, and not force everyone into 'private ownership'.

Bob Crow chooses not to be tempted to buy his home, or to invest in property. Most of his wages goes on social causes. (Like the Uruguayan President Mujica who gives 90% of his wages to good causes) Crow is not 'taking the house of someone who is more needy' but is articulating the rights of his members to affordable and secure housing. It is Tory and Labour policy over the last 30 years that has stolen the homes of the most needy. 

I was brought up in council housing, and my mum, sister and her child still live in them. The Tory council in her town now plan to demolish their homes (and those of 300 families who live on the estate) to make way for a private development and force them to be rehoused in another development many miles away from where my mum earns her keep as a cleaner (meaning she will lose her job because she won't be able to cycle to work anymore, and there isn't a bus route)

The way people in Council housing have been treated is beyond belief. They are not cattle to be moved in and out of housing on a whim - these houses are their homes. Our homes should be secure and affordable. Bob Crow is not the problem, national policy is. The debate is never that rich people should be forced to give up their second homes because of the national housing crisis - instead we have the 'bedroom tax' that forces people out of their homes (often the most vulnerable and many being elderly or disabled) and now an attack on an individual who chooses to stick to the notion that a council house is not just a hand out from the state, but a hard fought for right for all people, regardless of income.

Bob Crow is a communist. He believes that things like housing, education, transport should be held in common. Though he is a pronounced atheist, he shares his lifestyle with the early Christians who (described in the earliest history of life after Jesus, the book of Acts) shared all they had in common and ensured that those in need were provided for. I think he should be applauded for his standing up for common ownership, and the right of all people to live on a place that they and their children can call 'home'.

Check out http://defendcouncilhousing.org.uk/dch/ 

PS - Why does Bob Crow drink herbal tea? Because 'All Propertea is theft!'

Monday 18 November 2013

No wonder the The Co-op Bank got in such a mess...

The news of The former Chairman of the Co-op's staggering fall from grace came as a huge shock to me personally - as I knew Paul Flowers back in my Bradford days. He was a local Labour Councillor and the Methodist Minister up the road at Great Horton, and had even had me up to preach in his Church. Over the last 5 years though, he had become increasingly elusive, and I had given up calling him an ally in any progressive Bradford campaigns I was involved in .

I knew that he was working with the co-operative group, but I had no idea he had risen to the rank of Chairman! As far as I know, he didn't have a background in banking at all, so it is of no surprise that he allowed such poor oversight of the banking activities of the Co-op.

The last time I had seen him, he was being picked up in a 'work related' chauffeur driven limousine, which at the time made me furious about how my co-operative money was being spent!

It is such a shame, as Paul used to be a great Methodist minister, with a particular concern for asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups. He had overcome some serious homophobia from neighbouring churches following his appointment, and in the early days was usually affable and helpful when you went to him in his role as a local councillor.

But he was always far too full of his own self importance, and his famous dinner parties were always occasions for him to boast of his connections and his travels. He was a classic champagne socialist, though it was increasingly hard to work out what was socialist in his activities and outlook.

I liked Paul, despite him publicly chastising me when I stood for the Green party against corrupt members of the local Labour mafia. If he has genuinely learnt something from this experience, then I sincerely believe he will go on to be a good minister again.

Hedonists need to curb their desires for self gratification, especially when it comes at the expense of the trust that others have placed in them. Having heard the stories of drug taking and excessive partying, I am now even more aghast at what happen to the centre of the Co-op Bank, as it began to act as if it were owned by an elite, and not by its members.

This story may have been one of personal tragedy for Paul Flowers, but it has also been a historic catastrophe for all of us dedicated to the co-operative cause.

Sri Lanka and the Commonwealth of Shame

David Cameron's feeble criticism of the Sri Lankan Government during the the Commonwealth meeting in Colombo packed virtually no weight at all. Though his visit to the North of the country at least allowed many families to show the world pictures of the 'disappeared'. He would have been more credible if he had stayed away, like many other commonwealth heads.

Instead, he turned up, wined and dined with a man responsible for the death of at least 40,000 people during 2009, a government which has since overseen countless incidences of torture and disappearances of Tamil activists.

The problem for Cameron was this: if our government accepts that Sri Lanka's government is a vicious, war mongering one, full of war criminals and those who have broken International laws on human rights - then it has to explain why Britain supplied it with many of the weapons that enabled it to conduct such massacres during the bloody civil war. Britain has also happily continued to arm the country, despite widespread evidence of continued human rights abuses long after the end of the 30 year conflict.

The weakness of our Governments position was made evident by the Sri Lankan Presidents rebuff. 'People in Glass houses...'

When a vicious genocidal leader can so easily get the last word in, you really should stop and have a little think about your own moral position.

The commonwealth has always been unable to restrain its members, and simply looks like an irrelevant organisation, harking back to a non-existent better time in it history. If it really wanted to become relevant to the planet's future, it could encourage it's members to renounce weapons of mass destruction, and build a unified, ecological moral force for good.

If it really wanted to tackle issues of 'equity and inclusion' (apparently one of the themes of the conference) , it could even think about it's own name, and begin going down the path of democratic socialism, finally learning to hold its own wealth in common...

Tuesday 12 November 2013

The Gravity of the situation

Alfonso Cuaron tells a masterly tale in the superb film 'Gravity' released this week. I don't want to give away too many spoilers, but this is a film about life, death, faith, fate, science, hope and that ultimately, in space, no one can hear you scream. There are no aliens in this one, just the horror of when you are faced with your own imminent extinction.

The story is essentially about Dr Ryan Stone, a mission specialist on a NASA shuttle craft, and how she copes with a series of catastrophic incidents which leave her chances of survival 'barely possible' (some would argue 'barely plausible' but I think you have to let Alfonso tell the story!)

She is aided by Matt Kowalski, on his last mission in space, his guidance and humour help her keep it together when every possible ray of hope is disintegrating.

She has used her work and space as a way of coping with the death of her 4 year old daughter, who tripped and fell and died. Now she has to work out whether she still has the will to live.

Whilst the effects do drive the film, (and they are spectacular) it is the emotional tale that makes the film so powerful and compelling. In a way, it completes a trilogy begun with Cuaron's other films 'Y Tu Mama Tambien' and continued in 'Children of Men', that examines the theme of death, and hope amidst terrible odds. These are all films in which at the end, you the viewer, come out of the cinema wanting to live for every last second.

Cuaron is sparse in the story telling, and yet issues of faith and prayer come to the surface, with references to Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism carefully woven into the story. But from womb to tomb - this is a story about life and whether we decide to live or die, or let the past close us down.

The themes of sacrifice and indeed resurrection will please the Christian audience - but I think this is a film which has set its aim even higher than one particular belief system. Whether you have a faith or not, you will leave the cinema being thankful for every gulp of air that you take - and that is film making at its very, very best.

Thursday 7 November 2013

Re-nationalise Britain's energy supply now!

Fuel poverty no longer affects the few. 25% of the population are digging into savings to pay bills. 1 in 6 are having to take out loans to pay the big 6 energy companies. The current situation is clearly unsustainable an immoral.

Gas and electricity should never have been handed over to the private sector. They are national assets and an essential part of our daily survival. There is no real domestic 'market' for energy - we all need heating, light and ways to cook our food. The big 6 companies can get away with murder, and make a fortune at the same time.

Murder is an accurate description. With combined gas and electricity bills soaring by up to 12% - hard pushed families, and especially the elderly, will simply turn the fires off even during the harshest of Winters. Thousands may die this year as a result of the cold, and the companies responsible will get away scot-free, as will the government that is failing to hold them to account. The Tory solution? 'Switch accounts' - 'more competition.' All policies that simply end up giving more money into the hands of the private sector vultures running our energy supplies.

Despite giving away record dividends to their shareholders, and bumping up executive salaries, the company's chief executives all came out last week and blamed government policies for the massive recent increases, arguing that it is the 'green levees' that are at fault. The Tories response was to agree, and ditch much needed ways of forcing the suppliers to go green. At the same time, the government are offering guaranteed energy prices to the Nuclear power suppliers at twice the current rate - ensuring bills will soar while the tax payers will be doubly hit.

Labour are trying to capitalise on the issue, but are weakly offering an energy price freeze during the first two years in office, a policy obviously leading to increases in bills prior o the elections and big price hikes after the two year period.

There is one obvious solution. We need to renationalise energy production, distribution and supply (in a similar way to the French and Chinese governments, whose state owned companies we will be paying to build our new nuclear power stations!)

Common ownership of essential resources (Power, Water, Transport) is obvious in many other parts of the world. In the UK, the elites control of the political parties, the media and the gradual acquisition of education, means that such obvious solutions like nationalisation are almost entirely taken out of the equation.

Renationalisation of energy is credible, possible and crucial for the well being of the British population. We have to start building the case now, and force the national parties to begin to take the idea seriously. We simply cannot afford to let them get away with it.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

The Co-op - the end of an ethical era

It's been a terrible month for those of us who have been part of the Co-operative Bank since it's move to ethical banking policies in 1992. Way back then, I had been part of the LAMB campaign, (Lloyd's and Midlands Boycott) trying to get people out of the banks most involved with indebted 'third world' nations.

The trouble was, all of the banks had dodgy connections - so it was hard to argue for people to 'ethically' boycott a bank, and open a new account with one that had connections with the arms trade or something equally dubious.

At a senior level, efforts were being made to convince the Co-op bank to go further than simply being the bank that trade unions used, to one that adopted a serious ethical stance to investments.

When they launched the Ethical banking policy, we were ready. We passed a motion through the Bradford university student's union, and became the first student union in the country to completely boycott our previous bank (Lloyd's) and embrace the Co-op. I was then invited to work with the Co-op, going around the country with a staff member of the bank, explaining to other unions why they should follow suit. Over the next 2 years, over 40 student unions followed suit - and the Co-op's ethical stance had proven to be a huge success story for the bank.

In Bradford, it had the confidence to open a new branch, in a beautiful building by Alfred Waterhouse (he designed the Natural History Museum) as hundreds of students closed their bank accounts with the big four, and switched to ethical banking. This was replicated throughout the country and the bank went from strength to strength. It was owned by its members, so all profit went back into  movement.

For nearly 2 decades, being a part of the co-operative bank was something to be proud of, a truly ethical alternative to banking greed.

Then it all went horribly wrong. The view from insiders is that as the banking arm grew, managers were brought in who did not hold the values of those who had worked in the Co-op for years. Greed and more commercial interests were beginning to take hold. Then, the Co-op bank took over 'Britania' building society, trying to expand its market into mortgages. Somebody had not done the research, and the Co-op took on the Britania's vast mount of toxic debt. It was only the ill-fated decision to try and buy the Lloyd's bank branches that exposed the whole sorry mess and led to the self destruction of the Co-op. A £1.5 Billion gaping hole made them susceptible to a 'rescue' takeover.

Now two US 'Hedge funds' rule the roost, one, 'Aurelius Capital Management' are connected to 'vulture funds' trying to force debt repayments from Argentina and the second, 'Silver Point Capital' are connected to the gambling and the automobile industry (and, more sinisterly, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts!) Not quite the ethical corporates you would want owning 70% of the Co-op bank.

I think that there is no saving the Co-op, it will never return to being a mutual bank, owned by its members. It will be run in the interests of its investors. We can (and should) fight to keep it's 'ethical banking' values but in truth perhaps it is time to start looking elsewhere for an ethical place to invest our savings. A little in a local credit union goes a long way, and I recommend putting some in 'Shared Interest', which loans to fair trade companies in the global South.  We are looking at other mutuals, like the Nationwide, and perhaps even 'Triodos bank' might be worth investigating. But I can't help but be furious at the people who have gambled away the easiest and most ethical way to Bank in the history of British banking. It is a sad week indeed, and the loss will be felt for years to come.

Monday 21 October 2013

Bradford -the death of the EDL

Last week I had the privilege of attending Bradford during the pathetic EDL gathering. I say privilege, simply because this sort of event pulls together so many good folk who want to work for peace in the city. In three hours, at the small 'We Are Bradford' event, and at the 'Emporium of Dreams' base for peace activists, I met so many wonderful folk it was beautiful.

From the 'Emporium' well briefed peace lovers went out in small groups to make sure that trouble spots were calmed down, so that the EDL would not get the violence that they crave. The city was flowing with the green ribbons for peace, on each wrist and shop front.

In the 'We Are Bradford' event, there was lots of lovely food, and some great speeches from within the local community. It was small (about 250 at it's peak) but contrary to the lies spread about it by the authorities - it was almost entirely made up of locals, and was completely peace loving. For this reason it was sad that while there were speakers from the local synagogue, humanist association, women for peace, local Muslim groups - not a single person from the local churches spoke.

Though asked, I chose not to speak, as I was there simply to help out, and my comments might not have been helpful! I understand that there are different approaches to tackling the EDL, and ignoring them is one valid approach, but I really think that there are enough churches/clergy around to work on many fronts, including supporting local people who refuse to abandon the city centre to Fascists and the local police when these events happen. At least the local Methodists were around, along with many lay Christians from Anglican/Catholic circles. The only Anglican priest I found on the streets was playing a supportive role all the way from Luton

The great news was that the EDL stump demo was pitiful, a couple of hundred flag wavers (including Israeli flags to try and wind up some local Muslims) who failed to achieve anything thing at all. Even Tommy Robinson/Lennon has realised it is time to desert this sinking ship, floundering under the weight of its own human excrement.

People have seen through the EDL's racist and Islamophobic lies, and their thuggish Nazi beliefs are now clear for everyone to see. The costly Bradford demo was hopefully one of the last breaths of failed movement.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

The EDL is history, but what to make of Tommy Robinson?

It is a confusing story - Tommy Robinson renouncing the EDL for its right wing extremism. When I first heard the story, I thought it was a spoof.

But it couldn't be more real, Robinson and several others have resigned, citing that Nazi's and other extremists have taken over the helm of the English Defence League.

I can't believe that he hadn't noticed this before! Every EDL demo I've opposed was loud with some of the most hateful far right chants, and he was definitely at the same demos!

Having just watched Robinson on Newsnight though, I have to give him some credit. It seems it is possible to head an extremist street fighting sect for four years, and then to see the error of your ways. It was a bout in prison that did it, followed by his encounters with brave Muslims who are taking huge risks by countering violent forms of political Islam.

Don't get me wrong, his analysis and beliefs are still clearly flawed, but their seems to be genuine remorse at some of the harm he has done, and a desire to make amends.

One of my most treasured moments in my last job was when a former member of the EDL came to my house and handed over his EDL Division hoody. He had come to realise how hate filled they were and that they were not part of the solution, but a major part of the problem.

People can change. All people deserve forgiveness and we should be prepared to take Robinson at his word.

We now know that what remains of the splintered and dying EDL is toxic and dangerous. Those who now decide to throw their lot with them should be exposed as the evil racist Nazis that they clearly are. There can be no hiding behind the idea that the EDL represent 'ignored white working class' concerns. They are nasty street thugs bent on violence and extremism. Time for them to disappear down the sewer where they belong.

Bring on the Uruguayan!

The long awaited announcement that Gus Poyet is to be the new Head Coach at Sunderland AFC is great news for the Uruguayan. He has long been interested in the club, and was in the running 6 months ago for the post. I'm sure club owner regrets not giving Gus a try sooner given the divisive and disappointing fiasco that accompanied Di Canio's ill fated reign.

He has got his work cut out, with Sunderland trailing in the league, cut adrift after only managing 1 point in seven games. But the talent is there, and the spirited play by the team against Liverpool and Manchester United has given us all great hope. Kevin Ball, the Caretaker manager should take some credit for this, and Poyet would be wise to work closely with this local legend, who many will feel has been unlucky not to have been given a shot at managing himself.

The Uruguayan brings with him a passion and energy that the fans will soon appreciate. All Uruguayans are mad about football. I recall my wife (also born in Montevideo) once forgetting our wedding anniversary meal because the national team were playing!

We really wish him well, and will be praying for a more stable time for the club in the coming months. We want his South American passion, and we need a manger that the players can actually respect.

Finally there is some hope to regain our reputation as a top footballing city. Bring on the Uruguayan!

Monday 23 September 2013

Di Canio should never have been appointed in the first place.

I do not entirely blame Di Canio for the mess that he has created. The Club owner bears some responsibility for appointing a self declared fascist, who had no track record in the top league, and who was well known for his bully boy tactics. We can only hope that Ellis has learnt from this mistake and is swift to appoint steadier hands.

Di Canio seemed to think that it was OK to treat people like dirt, and that demand that they don't use ice in their soft drinks. He dismissed everything about his predecessor, and the list of players he castigated publicly and privately got longer and longer. Cattermole, Fletcher, McClean, Bardsley, Cuellar, Ji - the list is incredible. He then had a go at Stephane Sessegnon, and let go of one of the best players in a Sunderland shirt, straight in a WBA one.

It was perhaps Sessegnon's goal against Sunderland that killed off Di Canio. He had laid into the player after he had left, and the goal was sweet justice. The dignified striker did not celebrate, as he respected the Sunderland supporters much more that he respected the Sunderland manager.

Some had hailed Di Canio as a saviour, especially following the 0-3 win against rivals Newcastle. But many of the stars of that victory, including Vaughan, Mignolet and Sessegnon were soon to be sold or sidelined.

The 14 new signings led to confusion over tactics, language and style, and this was added to by Di Canio's inability to adapt his management style.

I have grown to love the football craziness of this great city, and I sincerely hope that a new manager can pull us out of the nose-dive Di Canio has left us with. But Ellis - please - no more bullies, there are enough of them in this world already 

Tuesday 17 September 2013

'Elysium' - what happens when the welfare state is gone.....

This is not so much as a blog, but merely a quick plug for this movie, one of the few 'must see' movies of the year (along with Cloud Atlas.) It won't be around at the cinema complex's for much longer, and it hasn't been a big box office hit - but it deserves to be.

It presents a nightmare image of the future, but of course, is a thinly disguised parody of the present. 1% of the people live in blissful conditions on 'Elysium', orbiting the earth, unreachable to all but the elite. Then there are the 99% living in the toxic, climate changed chaos of Earth. Terrible working conditions, a police state, awful poverty.

Health care is one of the big concerns of the movie. Though breakthroughs in technology have elongated the life and quality of the elite, these benefits are denied those who cannot afford them. I can't give too much away, but a hope for the future is if it becomes possible for all to equally have access to a decent healthcare system. That would be the greatest achievement of any revolution.

The film suffers from feeling the need to display the extreme violence of weaponry, (already explored more purposely in 'District 9' Neill Blomkamp's first directorial triumph) and an absurd plot twist when some mercenaries pointlessly wreak havoc on Elysium. But despite these weaknesses, the ideas and execution of the film make this one of the best films of 2013. It deserves a bigger audience, so get out there and check it out before it goes from our big screens

Saturday 14 September 2013

Sunderland Woman first CofE female Bishop!

My two girls are thrilled. Their school is buzzing with the news that a former pupil has become the first woman ordained in the Church of England to become a Bishop. What a role model to have in your School!

The only problem is that Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, a pupil in Benedict Biscop school in the 1970's, has had a long journey on the way to becoming a bishop. In fact, it's about as far a journey as possible. She is now a bishop in the Anglican Diocese of Waikato, New Zealand.

Helen-Ann, 40, who grew up in East Herrington, is the third woman to be bestowed with bishop’s the title on the Tasmanian Sea island.

It is a further break through in the quest for woman Bishop's in the Church of England, as is the news this week that the Church of Wales has approved the ordination of women into the episcopate.

But how long will it be before the Church in England gets with the programme? I'm thrilled for Helen-Ann, and I'm thrilled for Sunderland to get another first - but in truth I would like my little girls to grow up in a country where they can see their role models be female Bishops a bit closer to home than Tasmania!

After the exorcism...

Well, it's been nearly a week since we performed a symbolic exorcism at the DSEi arms fair in London, and finally, the 30,000 arms dealers and buyers have been sent scurrying away. The Exorcism seems to have helped in the early expulsion of a couple of companies who had been happily selling illegal weapons of torture (though that might have had more to do with Green MP Carolyn Lucas spotting the buggers during her quick inspection!)

Last Sunday was a triumph of protest. When I arrived, several military boats had been marooned whilst activists had blocked there entry to the Excel site. Later in the day, whilst several of those who had chained themselves together were being carted away, we decided to make our move.

I had already been warned that if I stepped into the road again I would be arrested, but now I was in full clerical gear, and I was sure that if enough people joined in, we would be free from too much police hassle. I marched through the police line singing 'Peace is flowing like a river' I knew that the other clergy, Keith and Helen were right beside me, but it was only when I turned that I realised that perhaps 100 folk had followed us into the road at the entrance to Excel. The police were pushing back, so I encouraged the people at the front to sit down, and finally we had the space to conduct the service. I found it deeply moving. What had begun as a mostly symbolic act, suddenly took on a spiritual life of it own. Normally when leading events like this, it is hard to feel moved, as you are too focused on simply getting it done. This time was different, as I shouted a 'casting out' of militarism and violence, I felt the presence of God right in the heart of what we were doing.

Later in the week I witnessed even more wondrous sites, including seeing seven Christian friends blocked the entrance to the site (I played the decoy, as the police were so obsessed with trying to stop me praying for peace in public, they let the well dressed protesters sneak by them!)

Watching activists at work is a beautiful thing, and to see people of faith join in gives me great hope. However, much more needs to be done. I counted 6 priests and ministers in action throughout the week, Anglican, Methodist and Catholic. Why not 100? There were on total 4-500 protesters over the few days we were there. If 5,000 had turned up - we could have closed the whole thing down.

The adverts were out for the next arms fair in 2 years time. Let's be blunt, these fair fuel the wars of tomorrow, there is no such thing as an 'ethical arms fair' - people are here to make as much money as possible, regardless of the suffering that comes from the sale of such items.

Let us commit ourselves now to be there again, and to prepare ourselves by learning the techniques of creative and non-violent direct action - blockades, costumes, humour, prayer - and even the odd exorcism.

Friday 6 September 2013

Exorcising the demons of militarism

On Sunday, hundreds of activists will take to the streets of London in an attempt to highlight one of the greatest hypocrisies of our time. Whilst our nation shouts out about the terror states across the globe, we discretely organise weapons fairs, and sell to some of the most despicable regimes you can imagine.

DSEi (Defence and Security Equipment International) is held every two years in the London Docklands Excel exhibition centre - it is one of the worlds largest arms fairs, and millions of pounds worth of weapons contracts will be arranged here each day.

Drones will be popular, as will equipment used to stop your nation's people from rising up against the state. Assault rifles, electronic batons, bullets that explode upon impact with human flesh, all will be sold and many to nations whose governments have quelled the hopes of freedom for millions of their own people.

This evil has got to stop. And it is pure evil

For this very reason, a large gathering of Christians will perform a symbolic exorcism at DSEi 2013. We will name and shame the demons of militarism and greed. We will call for repentance for our government's promotion of these horrors, and pray for the companies whose main marketing policy is the hope for death and destruction.

Check out the Campaign Against the Arms Trade's website, and for God's sake join us at 12 noon Sunday to disrupt the preparation for this horrific event and at 4pm again for our exorcism. The fair starts officially on Tuesday, and you can come and 'meet and greet' the 25,000 mostly male arms dealers/delegates early that morning on the trains of the Docklands Light Railway (run appropriately by SERCO who run the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment)

Do come and join us if you can over the next week, lets 'cast out' this evil trade once and for all!

Thursday 5 September 2013

Why the Yurt Works!

We had our first service in the Yurt on Sunday, and it was truly beautiful. We had a simple time of Taize style worship (chanting and silence) whilst praying for peace around the world.

Many have asked - 'Why a yurt?' so I feel obliged to explain why it seems to work. My first encounter with a Yurt was when Methodist saint Barbara Glasson acquired one in Bradford. The purpose was to have a mobile contemplative space that encouraged encounter and opportunities for listening to one another and to God. From the first moment I went into one, I realised how powerful they were as a spiritual and human experience.

I think that the reason the Yurt works is down to its shape, size and functionality. Shape - round buildings seem to reflect the shape of a human being more adequately than square ones, and people feel instinctively more relaxed in 'curved' environments. Rudolf Steiner, the great philosopher and educationalist understood this, and it is reflected in the schools built in the 1920's. Even now, new education buildings encourage learning simply by adding curves - it just works.

The size of the yurt matters - the scale is human, small, intimate. Conversations feel more comfortable when words are held close, Words can truly be listened to and not lost in space. Large churches are ideal when we are trying to communicate to something much greater than ourselves, but not so great when your theology understands Jesus as being 'close' to us. 'Don't call me master' says Jesus, 'for a servant does not know his master's business. I have shared all I know with you, for you are my friends.'

An intimate God requires some intimate spaces, and the small scale yurt helps.

Functionality. Yurts are mobile and can be set up anywhere. once erected, they complement their contexts, but they make everyone examine their contexts afresh. Having a yurt in the Minster makes us think afresh about space and how it is used. The nomadic life of a yurt reflects something of the life of discipleship. We need to be ready to move if necessary. This will always be tough, and having just gone through such a process personally in our move from Bradford to Sunderland. The process of relocation is made easier when we learn something of the gift of simplicity. A yurt, a tent, helps us to gain and insight into this.

We complicate our lives with clutter and objects, and they in turn make us inanimate and unadaptable.

The yurt is mobile, yet is a place of hospitality and homeliness. It is always welcoming and warm.

Paul Spencer, from Highland Yurts, the man who built the structure has crafted something of great beauty and well as perfect functionality. Come and see it for yourself. We'll be hosting our services on a Sunday night in the Yurt till Easter, after that its available for storytelling and truthtelling around the North East. In the meantime, let us all try to learn from our Yurt!


Sunday 1 September 2013

Why Di Canio needs to change his management style!

The rumours of discontent at the Sunderland camp are growing day by day. Di Canio's management style must surely come under question after the poor showing against Crystal Palace. We needed to pick up at least a point from that game, with much tougher games coming up.

Di Canio may have been playing down his Fascist past in the light of his appointment to a city with a proud anti-fascist tradition, but his mentality is clear for all to see.

I hope to God that Di Canio repents of his ways and finds a new way of coaching that does not involve bullying and belittling people. He has been harsh on Fletcher, but it was the Scottish frontman's goal that gave some hope to fans yesterday. Di Canio's mismanagement of Sessegnon has led to the loss of this great player to the team. Shouting and demeaning players if they do not make you look good is short termism gone mad. You do not build a team by simply buying new players, but by valuing all in your team.

Without change (and some good results) Di Canio must go. And not just because he is formerly a self proclaimed fascist, though that maybe reason enough, but because he is simply not up to the job. The far right have always been rabble rousers, shouting their way into power, but they have no real long term solutions. After they have attacked others for their own failings, they are often shown up for who they really are - simply bullies full of empty promises.

Wednesday 28 August 2013

More bombs will not bring peace to Syria

After a short 4 days camping at Greenbelt without any news available, it was a huge shock to come home and see the headlines that the UK, US and French governments are planning to bring peace to Syria by bombing it.

I should not have been shocked, this have been the way our governments have repeatedly operated in the Middle East when they have had the opportunity.

The problem with the use of overwhelming military force is that it does not always create the conditions for peace.

First in Afghanistan, the US led 'peacekeepers' overthrew the Taliban. As horrific as the Taliban were - that military solution has not led to peace. Afghanistan is still the poorest country on earth, but it is now the most dangerous place on earth and the biggest producer of the world's heroin.

Then in Iraq. We all wanted to see an end to Saddam Hussein's rule, and 'Shock and Awe' certainly did that. Then after the shock, the real fighting began, a bloody battle for power that claimed the lives of over 1 million folk and has left a devastating mark on the country and region. 10 years on, and the daily bombing is now hardly seen as worth reporting by our news outlets.

In Libya, again, US, UK and French bombers did their thing, and Gaddafi was brought down. Then followed the vicious internal battles seldom covered by the media, let alone the continued fighting brought to neighbouring countries.

My point is, that as much as we want to see Assad held accountable for the killing of his own people and the possible use of chemical weapons, bombing by Tomahawk missiles is not the answer. US led invention may eventually lead to the end of a regime, but it does not resolve Syria's more entrenched problems. It can even lead to a complete breakdown of the country with the result of decades of violence to come.

I believe that outside nations and the UN could have a better role in pushing for peace in other ways. Negotiations and peace talks may appear like weak responses to news of chemical attacks, but a process of national reconciliation is the only way forward to avoid decades of suffering.

The only people who are happy at the news of international airstrikes are the companies heading to the biggest arms fair in the world - DSEi in London this Sept. War, and the threat of war is big business. The arms companies are happy to see the ratcheting up of the prospect of bombing. They are normally manage to sell weapons to both sides, so they never lose out.

The Syrian people deserve freedom and a peaceful future, but I fear that all we are offering them is many more years of suffering.

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Caroline Lucas MP - a fracking hero!

News that the Green MP for Brighton was arrested at the anti-fracking peaceful protest at Balcombe did not come as a great surprise. Whenever I have encountered Caroline Lucas, at Menwith Hill or at anti-arms fair protests, she is clearly still full of passion and thoughtful dignity.

Recently I met with one of her case workers, Melanie, someone I have known for nearly 30 years. Melanie always stood out as a caring and tireless activist, currently she is editing the magazine for the Campaign Against the Arms Trade amid part time case work in Brighton and doing some excellent parenting. When we met on a beach in Whitley bay, I had no idea she was working with Caroline. The realisation that the MP has made such sound judgement for her staff team gave me a real sense of hope.

Maybe it is possible that MPs can have morals! What a hope!

There must be a hundred causes this MP could get arrested peacefully protesting at, the fact that she has chosen the environmentally dubious 'Fracking' programme shows the seriousness that we should all take it with.

Even as a parliamentarian, she has not been able to get answers from ministers about the dangers of the processes or the extent that companies such as Cuadrilla have permission to get away with mining without any local consent.

Given all this, she has put her body where her politics are, and she should be commended for it. Let her be an example to other MPs, they should not just complain when the fracking starts in their own backyard - let them act when the drilling commences!

More importantly we need to follow her example, and whether its anti-fracking or protesting at the coming arms fair in London (day of action 8th Sept starts at 12noon at Excel exhibition centre - be there!) we need to realise the potential of direct action as our last resort to stopping the excesses of this or subsequent governments.

The well being of this planet depends upon us!

Spooks; the real world of Government cover ups

As the hours pass, the lengths governments will go to protect their lies is further exposed. I wrote in my book about the steady erosion of civil liberties in the UK over the last 20 or so years, but over the last few months the crisis of democracy deepens.

The events of the last few days; the partner of a Guardian journalist detained under terror legislation; the disclosure that GCHQ spooks oversaw the destruction of hard drives that contained material from whistle blower Edward Snowden, feels more like a Ken Loach movie from the late 80's, than what we thought was the real world.

David Miranda was detained and had his laptop and other electronic devices taken away, before being released without charge. To hear the justification given by Teresa May, the Home Secretary, you would suppose that he posed a major threat to the British people. In fact, the real danger is that we have a government in power that would so easily sanction the silencing of the media.

Snowden has merely made public something that activists have known for a long time - governments spy systematically on their own people, particularly if you happen to be anti-war or of a left wing persuasion. Its not just Islamic terrorists who come under scrutiny, its anti-fracking campaigners and peaceniks.

Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who has told the story of the leaks from Snowden has done the world a huge service, he and all the people who have made this possible are heroes. The fact that Cameron himself knew of these abuses to our basic civil liberties and freedoms of the press, makes it questionable if he is fit to govern a living, thinking democracy.

Monday 19 August 2013

Di Canio set for a fall

I have two great hopes for Sunderland AFC this season - first, that they comfortably stay in the Premier League, and secondly, that the love affair with the Italian Fascist begins to fade. Criticism of him lessened the minute Sunderland defeated Newcastle 3 - 0, but I think that as time goes by, Sunderland supporters will soon turn their backs on him.

The opening of the season, the so called 'dawn of a new era' ended being a 1-0 defeat to Fulham on our home ground. One of the best players in that match, Sessegnon, is now rumoured to be available for other clubs to sign. In the manner of Mussolini, the man whose portrait graces his tattooed back, Di Canio is obsessed with creating a 'new vision', and seems to think that shouting, bullying and raving will achieve his results.

Hopefully, some of the new players will soon settle in, and Sunderland will stay up - but Di Canio's style may soon feel grating to the good supporters of this city, and I hope that along with many brief Italian holiday love affairs - it will end sooner than expected.

My new Sunderland top which read 'Love Sunderland, Hate Fascism' was a big hit with most folk who saw it. It certainly opened up many debates. Many people do not want to talk about this issue, but until Di Canio owns up to his past, apologises for the hurt his actions have caused and denounces Fascism unconditionally, then he is unacceptable in the increasingly multicultural and diverse city of Sunderland. Turning a blind eye to Fascism never ends well!