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.