Wednesday 17 December 2014

Hope for Cuba

The cost of the illegal blockade to the Cuban economy has run to over a trillion dollars, making life hard for many on the island. So it is great news that Castro and Obama has managed to come up with a deal that signals the end of this act of economic war. On a more personal level, the release of the remaining members of the Miami 5 is hugely welcomed, albeit after decades of inhuman treatment at the hands of the US government.

So what has brought on this apparently sudden change of heart? The cynic in me would say that Obama is thinking about his legacy, and that it won't make too much of an impact on Hilary Clinton's chances of winning for the Democrats next time round.

It could be that reason that the US government gave for the blockade (that Cuba sponsored terrorism) was increasingly known to be ludicrous, and it was beginning to make US policy makers look completely stupid.

Whatever the reason, the lifting of the blockade could hopefully relieve some of the pressures on the Cuban people, and help the nation continue it's proud example of socialism. Its record on healthcare, agronomic development, education and international solidarity (Cuba was the first nation to send doctors in large numbers to ebola struck West Africa ) are second to none. For a small country it has always managed to punch above it's weight.

I recently watched 'Che' pt 1, the film based on Guevara's memoirs about the rise of revolutionary Cuba. It is a nation forged by revolutionaries who fought off US backed oppression, and managed to win against all the odds. Over 50 years later, it has never been defeated, not by attempted invasions, terrorist attacks, assassination attempts on Castro and other Cuban leaders, economic sabotage or the fall of the socialist bloc. Cuba remains one of the proudest achievements of human endeavour. There is an alternative model to capitalism - and it can produce excellent results in education, in healthcare and produce a fairer redistribution of wealth.

Cuba is not without its problems - it is neither socialist heaven nor the hell that the capitalist press like to claim. At least now it might be able to develop its own sovereign form of socialism free from the economic war that has been waged against it for over half a century

Tuesday 16 December 2014

From Beslan to Peshawar - the massacre of the innocents

It was September 2004 when 30 separatist fighters attacked a school in Beslan, Ossetia, killing 385 people, mostly children. Just over 10 years later, and we see another massacre of the innocents, this time in the much troubled city of Peshawar in Northern Pakistan.

It is hard to comprehend the mind of anyone who could do such a thing - to burst inside a school and shoot children and their teachers. But what we know from Beslan is that many of the murderers had seen their own friends and family killed in the Chechnyan war. Brutality breeds brutality.

Whilst condemning the violence of the terrorist, we cannot ignore the terror of the drone warfare that has been extensively used in the region, principally by the U.S.

Repeatedly, these drone attacks have killed many civilians including women and children - though it is almost impossible to tell how many. The US rarely hold their hands up when mistakes are made, even when independent observers say that weddings have been targeted in error. 

It is hard to do anything but weep for the mothers and fathers of such school tragedies. But the news of yet more bombing raids of areas held by the Taliban is not a solution. It is the violence meted out to the people in this region which has enabled the conditions for such an outrage to happen. More violence will not solve the situation but will exacerbate it.

Our hearts go out to the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Good Lord, strengthen the peacemakers of the region, and stop this endless cycle of violence. Let there be justice, but not revenge. If we allow the outrage of these deaths to cause yet more violence, then it is only the children in places like Beslan and Peshawar that suffer in the end.

Saturday 13 December 2014

A sad day for Scotland - Jim Murphy is a real thug

I first encountered Jim Murphy over 20 years ago. I got a phone call from him where he shouted at me for 10 minutes, telling me that I couldn't have two of the speakers that were due to be at a conference we were running in Bradford University. It was a conference on campaigning, and it was going to be a big one. I'd invited Jim because he was the NUS president, but before the phone call, I'd never spoken to him personally.

The two speakers who he disapproved of were from the campaign for free education. I knew them personally, knew they were good speakers and that their message was important. Jim saw them as a threat to 'Labour Students', who were moving in very right wing direction during the Blair leadership.

Murphy had sold the students out over the campaign for free education, and didn't want it pointed out. The way he swore and shouted at me, trying to bully me into changing the speakers was truly frightening.

I didn't back down, and the conference was a success - Murphy had threatened to 'destroy' the conference, and make sure no one came - but he failed. He even came himself to keep up appearances, and was as rude and obnoxious as expected.

The second time he deemed it important to ring me, was when the NUS failed to back our rent strike. He called me to tell me to call it off, as it couldn't win and was showing the student union movement in 'a bad light'.

We won the strike and set off a wave of strikes throughout the country. He never spoke to me again.

He was a thug them, and has proved himself to be a bruiser for Blair over the years. A smooth political operator, he's now the leader of the failing Labour group in Scotland.

He is one of the many reasons why many left wing activists like myself end up staying clear of the Labour Party - how does it allow such nasty folk to rise to the top? My prayers are with the Scottish Labour Party. They deserved better than this.

Tuesday 9 December 2014

Torture is a crime against humanity

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on torture comes as no surprise to many. The US has always used and promoted torture as a technique in times of war and in times peace. 'The School of the Americas' in the US has consistently been a place where torture techniques are passed on to the military students from right wing governments from across the world, and especially Latin America.

The US government abusing human rights is not new. It did not start after 9/11. The CIA and the US military have been doing this for at least 40years.

There is only one way that I will believe Obama is 'turning a new leaf' and going beyond simply admitting 'mistakes have been made'. That is when those responsible for these crimes are prosecuted and brought to justice. Until then, it will be 'business as usual'.

The report by the committee is 6000 pages, but will never be released, just a summary was allowed out in the public domain. This is not a promising sign that anything has really changed or that justice will be done

The worst thing is, it is entirely ineffective. It has never revealed any intelligence of worth, and has generated such hatred of the US that groups like ISIS are thriving wherever the US military have been able to do their dirty work.

It is simple. Torture is a crime. It does not work. It is counter-productive.

At we mustn't be naïve enough to think that Britain doesn't have blood on it hands also. So join Amnesty International, and lets make sure we hold all our governments to account for their crimes against humanity.

Saturday 29 November 2014

'Black Friday' V 'Buy Nothing Day'!

The desperate attempts by retailers to impose yet another hyped up shopping day imploded horribly on the streets of London, Leeds, Manchester and even Dundee yesterday. Police had to be called to protect staff and goods during the scuffles that broke out when shoppers tried to grab a pre-Christmas bargain on 'Black Friday', a US invented shopathon that follows Thanksgiving Day in the states. The scenes of thousands of frenzied shoppers prepared to climb over women and elderly folk to get ahead of the queue were quite distressing. Some commentators compared it to the 'Hunger Games' where poor folk get to murder each other for the amusement of the rich.

Rampant consumerism is of course, no stranger to Capitalism. The belief that 'we are what we own' is a strong component in everyday living, and in the 'West', it reaches into every aspect of our lives. None of us are immune, and it is common to find ourselves involved in 'shopping therapy' when we are feeling down. Like alcoholism or any addiction - shopping never fully satisfies us, and always leaves us hungry for more.

Thank heavens then for international 'Buy Nothing Day', another North American invention, this time started in Canada in 1992. It is a worldwide protest against over consumption, a world where 20% of the population consumes 80% of the resources.

It always challenges me, and reminds me that it is not 'I Shop Therefore I am' but instead 'I am created to love and to share - and I don't need any stuff that distracts me from that reality!'

Happy 'Buy Nothing Day'!

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Women Bishops - the long road to equality

It took 80 years of campaigning for women to become priests in the Church of England, and a further 20 before women gained the right to become Bishops as of yesterdays vote in the Church of England's Synod. It is a time of celebration; finally, the great administrators and pastors in our dioceses who happen to be women can now do what they are perfectly capable of doing.

But let us not for a second think that we have got to where we need to be. Equality is a long way off in the Church of England. In terms of women, we are at the beginning of a journey. It will take a long time for them to break the 50% in terms of full time paid clergy positions, and even longer before we reach that mark in terms of Bishops. There needs to be a period when men must step aside from expecting the top jobs to go to them, if women are to be allowed a chance to catch up.

But equality is not just about women in the church. It is hard to pat ourselves on the back for coming so late to the party over gender equality while the LGBT community are being treated so appallingly by the church institution. Do we have to wait for another 100 years before we see sense? By that time the Church will almost certainly be a tiny speck of its former self - mostly because it would have failed to heed the movement of the Holy Spirit, God's yearning for justice and equality.

And equality is not just gender or sexuality. The Church of England is still formidably class based. It simply does not represent or appeal to most working class people. The current church hierarchy is mostly an old boys network. The public school mafia may not necessarily disappear when women get to the top. 

Black people and disabled people are still virtually invisible at the top of the Church of England. One Sentamu does not make a Summer.

But let us not just complain about the higher echelons of our Churches. We must take a long hard look at the way inequalities are steeped into our parish lives. The processions, the style of worship, the clear hierarchies, the uniforms. I'm not saying that we should get rid of all of our traditions, but I do believe that we allow the seduction of power to corrupt us far to easily.

Our default position should be: How do we share out the power and resources we have so that the poor are lifted up and that the powerful are humbled. Only when we hold this biblical truth to be at the heart of our faith will we truly begin the next stage of the journey to equality. Only then may we understand the equality at the centre of God's reign, and the justice God so desperately wants for her creation. 

Interfaith Week 2014

From my contribution to the weekend edition of Sunderland Echo:
Interfaith Week begins on Sunday, and  it has become an important part of the life of the city. Sunderland has become increasingly diverse demographically, and has begun to play its rightful place in the global arena, both economically and socially. Theologically (how we speak about God) that poses new questions for us as a community. In recent years, we have increasingly began to share our streets with people of other faiths: Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists. This inevitably leads us to grow in terms of faith, as we recognise God is at work around us in new ways.

Sunderland is quite rightly proud of its great Christian heritage, but it has always worked out how to live alongside God’s diverse world. At St Peter’s monastic community in the 7th and 8th century, there is evidence of shared learning between Islamic and Egyptian Coptic traditions, mostly because of the trade routes that existed at the time, which allowed ideas, as well as ‘goods’ to travel across the globe.

Now the world has come more directly to us, in our streets and communities, and it is time that we shared all that is great about our faiths more directly. Our Christian heritage encourages us to show hospitality, and to recognise through Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan (someone from another faith) that it is our love for others that is more important than our words or our creed.
This week presents us with a good excuse to get to know our neighbours better and learn a deeper respect for how God is at work in the world today.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

My daughter has a good heart!!!

Prepare yourself, this may well be one of many blogs about my daughter over the coming years, so you'll just have to get used to it. As a family, our lives were changed dramatically when our youngest daughter, Angela, was diagnosed with Turner's Syndrome 6 months ago. Not heard of it? Neither had we, so there was much internet surfing and frantic questions of medically minded friends.

Turner's Syndrome is a genetic disease which affects 1:2000 live female births. It is classically associated with shortness of stature and infertility, but can affect a huge variety of health conditions, from heart and lung abnormalities to hearing and vision loss.

The diagnosis really took us by surprise. We had taken Angela to see a specialist at the Niall Quinn Children's unit in Sunderland because we were worried about her size and development. The doctors and staff were wonderful, and a couple of blood tests later, a 'mosaicism' Turner's Syndrome was confirmed. This is a variation on Turner's Syndrome where only a % of Angela X chromosomes are affected.

The treatment for height is dealt with by growth hormone injections, which began for us 6 weeks ago. the nightly routine of injecting a 7 year old child has been traumatic for everyone - but I'm pleased to say we are all doing quite well after an initially hellish period. I'll go into details at another time, but suffice to say there have been tears all round.

We recently met with the lovely folk of TSSS, a support group for those with Turner's and their families. It was wonderful, but also very sobering. The lifetime of health concerns, from high blood pressure to osteoporosis had not dawned on me, and the way short people are discriminated was clear from the anecdotes from some of the women.  

We have a lot to learn in the coming years, but thankfully, in Angela, we have a beautiful, brave and kind teacher. I want to end this blog with some good news. Angela had her heart looked at by a children's specialist this afternoon. Whilst in many children with Turners there can be major concerns, Angela, has a good heart.

This is no surprise to us. She is a wonderful, good hearted daughter! We wept tears of joy at the good news, the first of a long run of medical tests for Angela, and the signs are encouraging. She can have a good healthy life if we can keep on top of everything.

For those who know Angela, you'll know what a joy she is, and you can understand our fears and tears as parents. For those with a little faith, do keep her in your prayers. But, she at least has a kind and considerate big sister, doting parents, and, thank God, a good heart.

Monday 20 October 2014

Sermon at Uppingham School

Preaching at Uppingham Boarding School: (Reading: Luke 4 verses 16 - 21)

It’s a privilege to be here, and perhaps one of the most daunting tasks I’ve ever had – I come from a very unprivileged background – leaving school with no qualifications besides a C in Art, I went back to education later on in life when I wanted to be a social worker and activist for Christ.

I am, I think, possibly the first member of the clergy to address you who is well known for being arrested! My ministry developed during growing opposition to war in Iraq, spending on Trident Nuclear weapons, and I strongly support the Occupy movement which has sprung up globally from Wall Street, St Paul's Cathedral and more recently in Hong Kong. I had thought that opposing an elite who are growing richer and more privileged through the avoidance of taxation and the accumulation of wealth would hardly make me suitable Uppingham material!

So if it all goes wrong today I would like you to put the blame fairly and squarely on your Chaplain's shoulders; James, do you remember nothing of our time in Durham? I was the first Cranmer student to be arrested since that incident in the 60’s when a student was caught supplying pot to fellow ordinands! A story which throws some light on the quality of clergy that came from Cranmer during that period. They were very good.

James possibly fondly remembers at Cranmer College being part of the Jubilee 2000 movement which argued that the global south shouldn’t have to pay back the huge debts to the rich Western Nations who lent vast sums of money to them for things like weapons and expensive Western technology (such as nuclear power stations built on fault lines.)

The campaigning life that I have lived, that led me to spend nights in police cells, be the city centre priest for Bradford, to work with drug users and murderers – and now has led me to be the Chaplain to Sunderland University – a University with one of the highest percentages of students who never normally access higher education. – I have been led to all these wonderful and challenging places because I have tried to wrestle with the scriptures such as the one which we have just had read out.

When you hear yourself called a Christian, a follower of Christ, remember what it means. Christ means – Messiah – literally 'the anointed one'. And when Jesus uses the term ‘the anointed’ in this passage, this is what it means to him: ‘He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, regain site to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of Jubilee.’

Whenever you use that term ‘Christ’ remember what it meant to Jesus: ‘Anointed to bring good news to the poor’

I’m known as a liberation theologian, and that is often seen as someone who works with the poor and suffering, working in the favela’s of Brazil or the foodbanks of England. But actually Jesus worked equally with the rich and poor alike. In the story of the rich young man, it says he loved the rich young person, as he helped him to see that his riches and privileges actually were a huge burden. He wanted him to see that there is so much more to life than wealth and power – that love is the real key to happiness and the kingdom of God. Similarly when the rich and powerful leader Nicodemus comes to see him, he jokes with him and reminds him that he must be born again – by which he is saying that Nicodemus must not assume that his status is derived from the family he has been born into – but by allowing a rebirth, based on God working through him afresh.

When I am usually talking to kids of your age group in the North East, I am normally addressing the hardships they will face: Unemployment- the North East has one of the highest levels of youth unemployment in the country: Homelessness - most young people in our region will never be able to earn enough to buy their own property. We normally talk about the high cost of living, the cost of accessing Higher education. Most of you will never have to be so concerned with any of those issues because of the life you have been born into.

For most of you, the questions life will throw at you are very different. Just remember this – if the faith stories of Christ, Muhammad, Buddha have any impact on your life – the questions will probably be this: How have you used the gifts and privilege’s that you have been lucky enough to have been born into, how have you used them to build a better society, one where there is good news for the poor, the broken, good news for those who are oppressed? How have you built up a kingdom of fairness, peace and love?

When you really encounter poverty and oppression, Christ asks you to have compassion, and to work out your responsibility to bring about change.

You are the change makers of the future. How we tackle climate change; how we reduce the gap between rich and poor; how we either accumulate power and wealth or choose to share it out - will partly be down to people like you.

But rich and poor, we all have some common struggles with life: How do I fit in? Does anyone really love me? What is it all for? Why did you hurt me by doing that? How on earth did they allow Judy Murray on Strictly? The big questions in life.

The stories in this book (the Bible) will help you make sense of some of those questions. Use it wisely and all things will be well. Blessings on your journey, chose your companions wisely.

Dealing with home grown fundamentalism

No, not another blog about ISIS. This is home grown fundamentalism.

On walking through the city centre yesterday, I encountered two men berating a group of young people. The two men were from a local Pentecostal Church, and were, not surprisingly, describing how Gay people were going to hell. The young people were disagreeing with them.

Now, the easiest thing to do in that situation is to quickly walk away, hiding my dogcollar, and just getting on with the shopping needed for the event that was going on later in the Minster.

But I couldn't bring myself to do it. This hateful bile might become the image of Christianity that would stick in the minds of these four perfectly lovely young folk, unless something changed the story.

I turned to the group and with a big Howson smile aimed at the teenagers said: "our church is very welcoming of Gay people, not all Christians have these attitudes"

One of the young men turned and smiled. "wow, can I give you a hug?!" We hugged and I shook the hand of the other three young folk. The older of the two street evangelists lost it. "Repent" he shouted holding a bible in my face "You are sowing the seeds of the devil." I ignored him, and talked to the teenagers. "Some churches have moved on, hopefully we can try to remember that Jesus came to show us how to love, and not how to hate. You are welcome at the Minster anytime"

One of the guys began saying something about me going to hell or something, but I didn't engage - what was the point? I've become less convinced over the years that we can change the hearts and minds of fundamentalists - certainly not on street corners. Our job though, is not to allow them to go unchallenged, and not let there voices be the only ones heard. The damage these street evangelists do to the Gospel is immense, and they ought to be challenged where possible.

It's uncomfortable, and we may well be condemned and publicly attacked. It was horrible to be shouted at in the street like that. But I hope I changed the 'story of Christianity' in those young folks heads, and that hug certainly made it all worth the hassle.  

Sunday 19 October 2014

Harvest Ceilidh against Climate Chaos!

I hate Ceilidh dancing with a passion. I organise them regularly at Sunderland Minster for the sake of my wife, kids and all those other strange folk who seem to enjoy the prospect of dislocated ankles and heart attacks.

But today's Ceilidh is an especially important one. This is also a chance to take part in a national weekend of action organised by Christian Aid called 'Hunger for Justice'. It is a call on MPs to take more action on climate change, and to raise more awareness of this earth destroying phenomenon.

In the Philippines last year, 6000 people died and 4 million people were displaced in the biggest Typhoon to ever go inland. It was the 24th Typhoon of the year, caused by the earth's warmer and moister weather conditions. Christian Aid are picking up the pieces.

In Bolivia, the glaciers have shrunk by 30%, leaving people with shortages of water for the first time. Christian Aid are picking up the pieces.

In Brazil, they are facing the worst droughts in recorded history, forest fires are depleting the amazon at  record rate, a 300% increase last year alone. Christian Aid are picking up the pieces.

In Bangladesh, flooding has increased dramatically, affecting the ability of millions of farmers to feed the community. Christian Aid are picking up the pieces.

Christian Aid do not want to continue picking up the pieces. We need to work harder to prevent this global catastrophe. It is the worlds richest countries that are most responsible for this situation, but it is the poorest nations who are bearing the brunt of climate chaos.

We need our MPs to push the EU into 50% carbon reduction targets by 2030, with a deal to be made in Paris at the climate summit in 2015. We also need David Cameron to pledge $1milion for the 'Green Climate Fund' before the Lima conference this December to help the poorest nations deal with the climate chaos brought about by our policies in the West.

Yes, we will be dancing (badly) this evening in the Minster - but we will also be lobbying hard about Climate Chaos with our local MP, Julie Elliott, the Shadow Environment Minister, who will also be there.

Come along and dance, as if the planet depended upon it. Because that might just be the case.

Saturday 18 October 2014

Liberating Hong Kong

Our eyes should be on Hong Kong at the moment, and we need to be praying for a peaceful and just outcome to the struggle for the streets. Not since Tiananmen Square has the Chinese government faced such a challenge to its authority, and they need to know that this time, we expect a different solution than tanks and guns.

It is a heady mix of faith and politics that is propelling the people of Hong Kong to take such risks. The movement was founded by Church leaders, students and teachers, and their non-violent methods are deeply rooted in both liberation theology and the ethos of the global Occupy movement.

Occupy Central with Love and Peace, known as 'Occupy Central' is the civil disobedience movement formed by pro-democracy activists at the heart of the mass street protests.

Three fairly moderate figures - Benny Tai, a law professor, Chan Kin-man, a sociology professor and Chu Yiu-ming, a church minister - are its main organisers.

Occupy Central has been urging the Chinese government not to vet Hong Kong's top leader in the next elections in 2017.

The group said it would begin a mass, non-violent campaign on 1 October, in response to Beijing's ruling in August against fully open elections in 2017, but brought its protests forward by several days following student-led demonstrations outside Hong Kong's government complex.

In recent days, teargas and arrests have rocked the main group of protestors, and they are under huge pressure. Talks on Tuesday will be crucial if we are to see a peaceful outcome to this standoff.

But I think the potent mix of both Christianity and the Occupy ideology is a strong recipe for success, and we need to pray and act to encourage the Chinese authorities to accept the 'winds of change' that are transforming the faith and politics of the region.

Tuesday 7 October 2014

Finally getting some closure

I awoke this morning to have several friends post me the news that 'Barkers' of Bradford had been closed by the police for 21 days, while court proceedings are to take place. The Bradford local paper quoted me from the campaign I headed back in 2011, calling on the shop to be closed down. I even ended the day being interviewed by my old friends at BCB, the wonderful community radio station.
All good news - Barkers had always felt like unfinished business from my previous incarnation as city centre priest in that beautiful West Yorkshire City.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Barkers had always pretended to be a newsagent, but actually made its money from selling replica weaponry, real weapons such as crossbows and assorted knives, knuckledusters, plus a whole load of other dodgy and violent stuff. All semi-legal, 'collectors' were allowed to have them in their homes. I had always hated the shop, on a prominent site opposite where I used to get my bus - the window full of horror and stuff to kill people.

But when the so called 'Crossbow cannibal' was on trial for killing three women barely 200m from the shop - the owner decided to put on a special 'crossbow sale'. With the families of victims walking around and the shock the case had caused the city, I went into the shop and asked them to remove the crossbow sale. Initially, the owner said he would - but days later the offending killing machines were still on sale - so I went back in with a reporter from the Telegraph and Argus local paper.

The owner swore at us and told us to get out, and leave him to conduct his business in peace. And so the battle commenced. The papers and radio station joined in, so did a local MP. Privately the police told us they wanted to see the back of it because it was linked to local criminality, but the shop always managed to stay just within the law.

We put peace stickers on the windows in front of the weapons, we held vigils on Good Friday in front of the shop, and held a successful petition from neighbouring shops and those in the street calling on the shop to stop selling crossbows. When I left Bradford in 2012, the campaign was still in its infancy, and I felt frustrated that we had failed to see the place close.

So the news of 'Barkers' demise has come as a great relief. It doesn't end the ridiculous law that allows people to buy lethal crossbows, but it does show that that these shops lead to criminality, the reason for the police action. Hopefully this time the owners will not be able to find a legal loophole and manage to stay open. But at least for now, I've finally got some closure.    

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Prayers for Scotland

Tomorrow is a huge day both Scotland and for England, but I am hopeful that whatever the outcome, most people will get behind the decision made, and simply make the best of it.

Really, it will be alright either way. A NO vote is not the end of the world for the nationalists- it will have been won with so many concessions that it will pave the way to greater freedom for Scottish People (which will inevitably lead to full independence just a little bit further down the historical line) and a YES vote will not be as cataclysmic as the unionists have stated. Of course there would be a period of both uncertainty and anxiety with many problems to be resolved. Yet the joy and optimism that it would bring for many, will probably give the economy a bit of a boost, and hopefully the business community will (as always) seek to make the most of the situation rather than self destruct. There will be losses, but there will be many gains also.

Having said that, I'm beginning to think that the NO vote will win, simply because many people will have been swayed by the way Westminster and the Media have portrayed the economic situation post independence. This has been presented ruthlessly, and with an unhealthy bias to the status quo. This has been the case throughout history when a nation has tried to gain independence, the 'bigger' partner has always 'warned' of the disaster to come. It is rarely ever true, but I think the scare tactics have been very effective.

What I know for certain is that our brothers and sisters North of the border will need our prayers and support for whatever the outcome will be. It's been a bruising battle, and we know from the polls that just under half of the population will inevitably feel broken and anxious when the result is known.

A Prayer for Scotland:

Lord - let all resist gloating, and work on reconciliation
Lord - let all work for the common good, whatever the decision
Lord - let your will be done, let your love be known when all the ballot boxes are put away.

Tuesday 5 August 2014

Taize - the call to peace

I was fortunate again this year to have a chance to spend a week in the Taize community in France, and what a joy it was! For those not in the know, it is a ecumenical community that exists to promote 'reconciliation between nations', and encourages young people to come together from different nations and spend time in discussion, worship and silence.

It is famous for its style of worship, involving chants which are sung repetitively in an almost trancelike fashion. But Taize is much more than it's music - and it is in the simplicity of life in the community that counts - eating together, sharing in all the tasks, meeting each day in small groups and discussing the bible. Quiet reflection is valued and encouraged.

One of the most moving times in the Church of Reconciliation was on Thursday evening, when a group of pilgrims from Palestine were invited to get up and sing the Lord's Prayer in Arabic. This was followed by a lengthy and warm round of applause which went on for an age. There were also prayers for the victims of the plane downed in the Ukraine - many of the victims came from Holland, and there were many Dutch pilgrims at Taize.

To see 3000 young people come together to pray for peace - and realise that most of those people will leave Taize and try to be peacemakers in their own communities is a very powerful sign of hope in the world. My own limited time of silence over the week was enough to make me realise that peace making in our homelands is costly and requires the difficult ingredient of forgiveness - but it desperately needs doing.

My hope is that the light of God's love I rediscovered in Taize, can burn bright within me as I try to be a peacemaker close to my own home. A special thank you is sent to all the inspiring people that I met!

If you've not been before - do consider a week there soon (coaches leave Birmingham and London each Saturday during the summer) It really is the perfect way to work out what God might be calling you to do with our life!

Monday 4 August 2014

WWI commemorations have hit the right note

I was nervous that the 100 year anniversary of the outbreak of war would be a little bit too patriotic and triumphalist. Far too often we have seen governments make use of past battles to build a false justification of present conflicts.

I am therefore pleasantly surprised, at the end of the days events, to find myself moved and relieved at the commemorations I have seen on TV and ones I've seen locally.

The mood has been honest, tragic, downbeat - but most importantly of all, with a grim determination to always work for peace, because the opposite is barbarism. The first World War was a disaster for Europe. It butchered the young men of an era, and wrecked the hope and progress of the period. It paved the way for a much greater evil that was to come under the rise of fascism.

All war leaves a trail of destruction, not just evident in broken lives and buildings, but in scarred generations wrestling with what they have done.

In the Sunderland Minster service, we pledged ourselves to continue to work for peace. At a time of butchery in Gaza, Syria, Ukraine and Iraq, it is imperative that we turn all our efforts towards peacemaking. There is much to be done.

Israel must be held accountable for its war crimes

I was so angry yesterday, it took me a while to calm down. When the Israeli army confirmed that Hadar Goldin was killed in action (possibly from an Israeli air strike) as well as feeling for his family, I felt for the entire Palestinian people, who had to endure the collective punishment dished out in reaction to his 'disappearance'.

When Hadar first went missing, it was assumed he was to become another case like the one of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who had tragically spent 5 years as a prisoner of Hamas. I watched the BBC news, as a well spoken Israeli officer, skilled in the art of PR, described how Hadar was seen being taken down one of the secret tunnels built in Gaza. This capture was a heinous act, and the officer went on to explain how Israel would react with 'crushing force'.

The bombs rained down, and another 400 Palestinians were killed. President Obama reacted by calling on Hamas to 'release their prisoner or face the consequences'.

The only trouble was though, was that the story of Hadar being whisked down the rabbit hole was simply made up. The hole was as fictitious as the one from Alice in Wonderland. The BBC simply allowed the officer to report the story as if it was fact. Everyone believed it, including presumably, the president of the United States.

Israel has been allowed to kill nearly 2000 people, (overwhelmingly civilian) with 400 children among them. 3,500 children have been maimed, and the damage has been catastrophic within Gaza. 66 Israeli's have needlessly lost their lives and they have managed to produce a much greater threat to their own security than existed before.

The Israeli government needs to held to account by the international community for the war crimes it has committed. It will not be held to account by its own people, who presumably have had to live with a lifetime of government lies about the Palestinian people, and by a large majority, endorse the atrocities committed by the conscripted army. It can only be the UN who impose sanctions.

I have met many brave Jewish peace campaigners who have spent years working with their Muslim and Christian counterparts, but it seems that most of the Jewish people are happy to believe that all Palestinian children are trained to kill from the age of 4, and that they are legitimate targets.

They are not. They are children. Bombing schools, hospitals, shelters, whole neighbourhoods knowing that civilians will die in their hundreds is a crime. There are no excuses.

For too long Israel has been unaccountable. Now is the time for that to stop. Gaza can no longer remain a virtual prison for one and a half million people. The wall that has been built to protect illegal settlements in the West Bank must be torn down. Palestinians who were driven from their homes in the 60's must be allowed to return home or be properly compensated. Palestinians living in Israel can no longer be treated as second class citizens.

It is these injustices that fuel the endless cycle of violence. The terrorism of both sides can only be stopped when the world refuses to accept that military responses are the only legitimate ones.

Monday 14 July 2014

The visionless Israeli policy: 'An eye for an eye...'

The escalation of violence in Israel/Palestine is as distressing as it is inevitable. At last count, nearly 200 people have died in the bombing of Gaza - 80% of whom at least are estimated by the UN to be civilians.

This is a predictable outcome of Israeli military policy: Crush the opposition, and if the Palestinians find some way of fighting back, the Israeli military response will be massive. We have seen this sort of collective punishment many times before. It is barbaric, and the Israeli government don't give a damn about how it looks to the rest of the world. As long as Obama keeps out, Israeli can do what it wants.

Does it always have to be this way? I hope not, but here are some of the ways forward: First, those of us opposed to Israeli violence must consistently attack all forms of violence. I'm sick of watching Palestinian leaders justify the killing of Israeli's or equating the sending of rockets into Israel as the same as throwing stones. We must openly condemn all forms of violence.

Second. Take action. Let us boycott Israeli goods - places like Tesco seem happy to sell Israeli goods - so lets be happy to make our views known by demonstrating outside shops who put profits before peoples lives. Lets take public direct action in a legitimate non-violent way.

Three. Lets get our message on the streets. I'll be at the regional demonstration at the Monument in Newcastle tomorrow at 5:30, and despite the distance, will try to get to the National demonstration called for Saturday at 12noon London. Israel thrives because countries like England refuse to condemn Israeli atrocities - so we must make it impossible for Cameron to appear neutral while such slaughter occurs. We need to expose lies about Palestine and tell the truth about conditions for Palestinians.

If there is to be a lasting peace in Israel/Palestine - it will come from peacemakers both inside and outside Jerusalem, it will come from the people who are sick of the ways of violence.

The policy of 'an eye for an eye' has left the bulk of Israeli and Palestinian politicians unable to see the truth of the situation. It is the women, children and ordinary citizens who cry out for peace who need to be listened to today. We must do all we can to make sure those cries are heard.

Finally, women Bishops. LGBT equality next?

Its been a long, long wait for gender equality in the Church of England. Obviously I'm overjoyed at the decision in Synod today, but you also have to also ask, why did it take so long? It's 2014 for heaven's sake, not the 1970's!

What makes the CofE so resistant to change? It took more than 80 years of campaigning for female clergy and even after women were accepted as priests, it took a further 20 years to allow them even the possibility of becoming Bishops.

The journey taken needs to be examined for lots of good reasons, but the main one is that we need to know when equality will come for our LGBT colleagues. We don't want to wait another 100 years before we see progress.

There are signs of change. Pioneers such as Gene Robinson in the US have paved the way, at great personal cost. But at the moment, the English bit of the Anglican communion seems to be taking a step back from accepting LGBT clergy. They shouldn't have to rely on the occasional brave Bishop who is prepared to employ an openly Gay priest living with his partner, or an Archdeacon who won't ask why two of his female clergy are living together. LGBT clergy need to be accepted for who they are and their gifts used to the full. Until we have equality in our churches, all of us in the C of E are strongly inhibited from proclaiming a Gospel of justice and fairness.

Change will come - today's vote marks a significant step forward for women in the Church. Today we can dare to dream of a church where equality matters, and the institution promotes rather than denies the justice found under the reign of God. Let us celebrate, and work for the next leap forward.

Monday 30 June 2014

Gifts of Sexuality and Gender Day

Over the last five years or so, there has been a growing movement in the US for a day in which the Churches celebrate the gifts that different genders and different sexualities bring to the life of faith. The designated day is the 29th June (not sure why?) so we decided to broaden that call to the rest of the world. and celebrated the day with a talk and discussion at our church meeting (SPACE, Sunderland Peace And Christianity Explored)

What is clear, is that there is a disparity between a ground swell with in the church to eliminate homophobia, challenging inequality, and the actions of the Church of England hierarchy regarding LGBT clergy.

In our churches, the CofE is being asked to be more aware and accepting of Gay Christians, but clergy who are Gay are told that they must be non-practicing. Indeed, if they are to even attempt to legally get married, they face disciplinary procedures with in the Church of England, as has already occurred to the first Gay clergyman who was married in May. Worse still, the church still refuses to endorse an official blessing service for Gay Christians who are in a civil partnership or who legally marry.

The strain of these injustices is already beginning to tell. Clergy clearly cannot defend an indefensible position, so have to admit when questioned that the Church of England is discriminating against Gay clergy and LGBT Christians - it is undoubtedly behaving in a homophobic way.

What a mess. In our church, on the 29th June 2014, the mood was defiant. We intend to publically and demonstrably show our support for equality in the Church, and celebrate the lives of all LGBT people of faith. We decided to have an inclusive stall at the next Sunderland Pride, and will not shirk from encouraging the Church to remember that the call to 'love our neighbours as we love ourselves' includes the LGBT community.

Saturday 7 June 2014

All War is Hell. The Day after D-Day, part 2

The 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings will always stand out in my memories. I was on my way to a Church event, and I was to be given a lift by the Church Warden of the place, who I had not met before. I was surprised that when the car that pulled up, it was driven by a very sprightly, but clearly very elderly man. D-Day 'celebrations' were everywhere, and as we drove I asked him if he had any memories from that time. The chatty man suddenly became quite emotional, and pulled up the car in a lay by, with tears in his eyes.

He then told me his story. He had not been on the beaches, but had been on a boat just off the Normandy Coast. He was a young medical officer and his job was to have been one of the most horrific of any on the day after D-Day.

The ship was there to take wounded, but not just anyone from the invasion. They were brought wounded German officers. The task was not to treat them, but to interrogate and torture them, mostly using the injuries that the officers had sustained.

It was important to know as much information about the German positions as possible, and this was one of the ways of doing so. But for a young medical officer in the army, a committed Christian and someone trained to heal, it was to leave painful scars for a lifetime.

'I can't take part in the celebrations,' said the man 'I've never been able to talk to others about what we did and I've only recently been able to honestly admit to myself my role in operation Overlord. Perhaps we did the right thing, perhaps because of what we did - we saved lives. But all I can remember is the screams of the German officers as we used their wounds to torture them'.

The lesson I learnt about war on that anniversary was very clear. Never try to dress it up, never pretend to 'celebrate' it. All war is hell.

The Day after D-Day

Its been impossible to ignore the D-Day 'Celebrations' over the last few weeks, and quite rightly so, and incredible feat of human endeavour and the beginning of the end of Fascism on the Western battle front.

But, as always, I have my issues with the way war is remembered, and only half of the story I told. I have seen no end of interviews with plucky 90 year olds, rightly proud and rightly moved by the memories. But I've yet to see a single interview with a German soldier.

They were there too. They too were mostly conscripts, they too watched as tens of thousands of their friends were killed.

I went to see the film, 'Saving Private Ryan' when it first came out, and I happened to take with me my German friend Uli. I came out, stirred, moved, shocked by the film - probably one of the most visceral exercises in capturing the horrors of the experience of D-Day ever made. My German friend was equally horrified and visually upset by the film. In the story, the Germans are just dots to be killed in the distance, the only one with any characterisation turns out to be a baddy. 'No wonder so many English don't like the Germans' said Uli 'Our Grandparents were just evil in your eyes, not fully human'.

Just as the Nazi leaders turned Jews into non-persons, and so allowed them to be exterminated as less than human - we must never turn our enemies into non-persons. Its a very dangerous game to play, especially during an age of increased nationalism and extremism. I would have loved to hear the voices of those Germans who face our troops on D-Day. They are people too. And 70 years on, that is perhaps the most important lesson that we need to learn from our shared history.

Friday 23 May 2014

The Horror behind 'Boko Haram'

'Boko Haram', the terror group responsible for the kidnap of over 200 girls in North East Nigeria, will be defeated. And tonight at Sunderland Minster, I saw the reason why. The 'Wearside Women in Need' and African Women's Support group organised a prayer vigil, to remember the plight of the girls and their families.

The vigil was marked by strong and brave women, many from Africa, who wanted to pray for those caught up in the horror of the kidnapping - but were determined to argue for the fundamental right to women's education in Nigeria and throughout the world.

'Boko Haram' simply means 'Western Education is forbidden' in the Hause Language. They set themselves up in 2002 and since they began large scale military actions in 2009, have killed 1000's of people, including 173 teachers as they attack schools where women are being educated.

They have killed far more Muslims than Christians, as they terrorise the population with a barbaric, fundamentalist form of Islam.

But their actions have caused a huge global wave of anger and disgust from Christians, Muslims and all who value human life. And women are at the forefront of the resistance to these men of violence.

Patriarchal violence is real and horrific, but it is destined to fail. Women are now stronger and more determined than ever to resist oppression. As I witnessed tonight in the Minster and as testified world over - sisterhood is on the up, and even groups like Boko Haram will wither and die in the coming decades.

But in the mean time, while we still have to live with these atrocities in our midst,  our cry goes out: 'Bring Back our Girls'  

Tuesday 13 May 2014

The Liberated Methodists of Thornaby!

I took a wonderful trip to Thornaby on Tees today to visit the Methodist Community Church near the town centre. It was a glorious revelation. Over the last 10 years, the church had strived to really get behind the local people, and when you walk in, you soon realise that this is a very different experience of Church.

Nurtured by Roberto and Suzie from Brazil, Liberation Theology is lived out in practise. I met people who were supporting 'Thrive', a campaigning group struggling against debt and doorstep lending; I saw the church hall converted into a gigantic children's play area, and happy families having a good climb together; I saw a beautiful modern chapel apparently often filled by local folk at the 50 baptisms they have a year - a service involving bubbles and friendship!

The congregation are looking to secure their development as a centre for contextual liberation theology well into the future, and are preparing for a period without a minister following the decision of the Methodist Church to move Berto down to the South coast.

They are in a good place to continue their impressive work - with a leadership team enthused about liberation Theology, and packed full of skilled and gifted individuals.

I know a lot about having to leave places you love, and it will be tough on Berto and his family. However, the Holy Spirit continues to bless whatever is left behind in love. They can move on confident that they leave an empowered group of people hungry to serve the local community, determined to live out the kingdom of God.

Let us hope that the local Methodist circuit recognises the gift that churches like this are, and nurtures and supports them over the period of transition to come. Peace, prayers and blessings to all in Thornaby Community Church!

Gary Barlow - Tax That! Under taxed and over rated!

The news that David Cameron and that odd little mayor in London agree that 'Gary' should not have to give back his OBE comes as very little surprise. Mr Barlow is a Tory supporter - and a rich one at that. 50 million copies of his records have been sold, and Take That regularly beat their own box office records for tour sales. He made over £4 million for simply appearing in a few seasons of X-Factor.

Gary Barlow is big business, and when has Cameron and his cronies ever pursued big business for their taxes? After all, he does an awful lot of work for charity. He is the boy made good, the one the queen turns to when she wants to organise a party.

So why not let him invest millions in a scheme that is designed to produced over £300 million in 'losses' to offset his income so that he can pay much less tax? Isn't that just what rich people do?

Perhaps if rich folk like Gary actually paid their taxes, then they wouldn't have to climb Kilimanjaro to raise money for Children in Need. Perhaps our children wouldn't be 'in need' if there were decent public services paid for through progressive taxation, and people like Gary actually shared some of their wealth with the million folk who bought tickets for his last tour.

Under taxed and over rated. Don't just give back your OBE Gary - give back your Gold Blue Peter badge while you are at it. You are a tax dodging disgrace.

Thursday 8 May 2014

Sunderland - Miracles can happen!

I've been pondering the nature of miracles of late. My football team have recently performed a feat that their manager, Gus Poyet, has called a miracle.

Sunderland were residing at the bottom of the Premier League table from the beginning of the season, while the fascist Di Canio screamed at the players and support staff, team moral and league positions hit new lows. A new manager gave new hope, and a trip to Wembley and two derby victories over local rivals Newcastle proved encouraging. Even so, a month ago Sunderland lay 7 points adrift at the bottom of the table - with seemingly impossible games to win. Away games at Chelsea and Manchester United meant an inescapable plunge into the Championship League below.

Then it all started to change. Connor Wickham was brought back from a loaned period and started scoring goals. First a draw to Man City, then a record breaking win against Chelsea on their home turf, followed by a trouncing of Cardiff. Beating Man United at their grounds in Old Trafford was a staggering achievement, and then, to seal the deal on the great escape - beating West Brom 2-0 last night.

13 points out of a possible 15 has left them high and dry. Sunderland will live on to enjoy another season in the English Premier League, one of the most exciting sporting events in the world. Phew.

Earlier in the day, I'd been on BBC television (they like a vicar who wears a red and white dog collar) and was asked whether I believed miracles can happen. In a bit of the interview not shown on the news, I explained that God worked his miracles through people. Through Jesus, through the disciples, through the small boy who shared his food at the feeding of the five thousand. God's miracles were worked out through people like Mother Theresa, Oscar Romero, Tutu, Mandela and the couple round the corner who run the youth group. God has entrusted miracles to us. In our hands is the power to change and improve the world through acts of love, compassion, mercy and devotion.

Their comes a time when people believe that faith can move mountains. The players at Sunderland regained their belief in themselves. They found a faith that made what seemed impossible, possible.

So yes. I do believe in miracles. And whilst I'm thrilled that Sunderland have stayed up, I'd be more thrilled by people regaining the belief that poverty could be eradicated, that companies could behave ethically, that governments could build up the common good and not destroy it. We need more miracles in these modern times. And the miracles are in our hands.

Friday 11 April 2014

The US must not succeed in destablising Venezuela

Venezuela is at a crossroads. The right wing is desperate to halt the socialist revolution post Chavez, and has provoked a series of violent confrontations in which over 40 people have died. Today, President Maduro is having talks with the loser of last years presidential election, Henrique Capriles, in an attempt to curb the violence - but I'm sad to say I 'm not hopeful for the success of these talks.

It seems to me that the US government and the right wing elite see this moment in Venezuelan history as a turning point. A year on from Chavez's death feels to them like an easier time to attack his legacy. But the election of Maduro has proved that the public still favour a socialist economy, where the wealth of the nation is put back to work for the good of all, especially those who have historically been disadvantaged.

Capriles and those further to the right need to accept the will of the majority of the population, and try to work with the government to reduce crime and inflation, the two things that are wrecking the progress of the nation.

It is unlikely though that the US backed coup plotters will stop destabilising the country. Only last week 3 Air Force Generals were court martialled for their involvement in a plan to oust Maduro, and there is evidence that the US were connected to the plot.

In the meantime, keeping awareness of the situation in Venezuela is paramount. If the victories won for working people are reversed in the country, and the socialist government is thrown out, there is a real danger for the welfare of millions of people throughout Latin America, especially the poor. 'Chavismo' has enabled progressive politics to flourish well beyond the borders of Venezuela, just as the liberator Bolivar had a greater vision for the region. This vision must be protected and nourished, not destroyed by the narrow interests of the US and a small wealthy Venezuelan elite.

Shell reaches new low.

The news last week that a US coastguard report showed that the oil giant Shell tried to tow one of it's rigs from Alaska to Seattle for tax avoidance reasons, despite warnings, is a new moral low for the company.

The rig broke free of its tow in terrible weather and crashed into the coast:

"The US Coastguard said on Thursday that the grounding of a Shell oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Alaska in 2012 was in part driven by tax-dodging.

Shell believed the rig would have qualified as taxable property on January 1 2013 if it was still in Alaskan waters.

The Kulluk Rig broke away from its tow in late December 2012 after it ran into a vicious storm — a fairly routine winter event in Alaskan waters.

Multiple attempts to maintain tow lines failed and the vessel ran aground on New Year’s Eve just off Kodiak Island.

Several days before the tow initially broke, the master of the tow vessel Aiviq sent an email to the Kulluk’s tow master expressing concerns about the conditions.

“To be blunt I believe that this length of tow, at this time of year, in this location, with our current routing, guarantees an ass kicking,” said the email.

It is Shell who need a good 'ass kicking' for putting tax avoidance before people and planet!!

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Liberating Theology

Many thanks to the Student Christian Movement and all the folks who made the 'Liberating Theology Weekend' such a brill experience. It was full of many moving and liberating moments, and my hope is that other places will want to do similar weekends, bringing together activists and theologians who are willing to be vulnerable and honest, whilst supporting others who choose to follow a Christ who lifts up the poor and pulls down the mighty.

The weekend began at the new Interfaith Centre, which now host's part of the 'Victor Jara' Liberation Theology Library. Having a centre for faiths that holds true to the message of an anti-oppressive God, and tries to resource that movement is a central hope for my time in the North East. I think we can draw people in to think, pray and act, and the library is part of that story. Victor Jara himself gave his talents and life to the struggle for progressive Christianity in Chile in the 1960's and 70's before he was brutally murdered by Thatcher's 'friend'; Augusto Pinochet in 1973.

Keeping subversive memories alive is part of the liberation struggle - it is the story of Exodus Eucharist and Resurrection.

Over the weekend we heard from Black theologian Anthony Reddie, Rosie Venner, Sue Richardson, Peter Mulligan and of course, myself. All were great in there own unique ways (!) and so was the joining in with the Young People's Assembly meeting in the Minster. But the real stars were all the participants, who shared stories and laughter, and helped us all build each other up in the faith.

Let's have more theology that is truly in the hands of the people! 

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Poyet must Stay - No to Anelka!

The shock announcement by SAFC that Gus Poyet is to be replaced by Nicolas Anelka is another nail in the coffin for the club. You would have thought that Ellis, the club chairman, would have learnt from last time - but it seems that desperation is driving club policy at the moment.

At almost the same moment last year, Ellis took the decision to replace Martin O'neill with Paulo Di Canio - and it was costly for the club indeed.

The fact that last year, Di Canio gave the team the shock they needed to actually stay up in the Premiere League must be the reason that Ellis has made this shock move - but it is a decision fraught with danger.

Anelka is not free from controversy himself - though the decision to bring in a 'player/manager' does have some merit in itself. Anelka will be able to take up a key strike position, and Sunderland have been unable to net many goals with Fletcher being injured for most of the season, and Altidore just being crap all year.

All together though - this just stinks of a chairman trying to find anyway possible to stay in the premier league, regardless of the moral situation. Poyet has done an amazing job following Di Canio's terrible start to the season, and the Uruguayan should have been able to try and finish the job he was brought here to do.

A sad day indeed for Sunderland AFC.

PS Happy April Fools Day 2014

Rev series axed by BBC after legal battle.

I am furious at the latest act of stupidity coming from the House of Bishops. The decision to take the BBC to court has made the whole church look ridiculous.

There is widespread condemnation after news that the BBC has cancelled the current series of Rev following a legal battle with the Church of England. The corporation has given no reason for the decision, save for a brief statement saying that ‘following legal representations made to the BBC, the current series of Rev will be taken off the air until further notice. A statement by the Chairman of the board of governors will be made later tomorrow. The BBC wishes to unreservedly apologise for any offence that may have been caused by the airing of last night’s episode of ‘Rev.’”

It is thought that it comes down to the fact that the BBC filmed an illegal act in a consecrated building owned by the Church or England, against  the express permission of the ecclesiastical authorities. According to inside sources, the Church of England ombudsman threatened to take proceedings against the corporation after a preview of the episode revealed the portrayal of a member of the clergy performing an illegal act. The BBC had initially agreed to alter the ending of the episode to comply with current legislation, but then suddenly changed its position at the last minute, less than an hour before the programme was actually aired.

Whilst the show approved by the BBC and the CofE displayed the main character obeying canon law, refusing to solemnise a Gay Wedding, (whilst being sympathetic to the couple) the programme that was actually shown last night, showed Rev. Adam Smallbone (played by Tom Hollander) actually performing an illegal act, in a consecrated church, which breached the BBC charter and the corporations own guidelines regarding religious programming.

The Rev. Richard Coles has blogged that he is appalled by the BBC decision to cancel the series and has threatened to resign from the Radio 4 panel of the ‘Moral Maze’ over the handling of the matter.

The whole affair is a disgrace, and highlights the ridiculous mess that the government and Church of England has got itself into over the Gay marriage debate. The BBC should stick to its guns and not to cave in under pressure placed on its satirical programming, and the Church of England Bishops should butt out, and realise that they are on the losing side of history. The 38 degrees petition against the BBC decision to cancel the show is growing fast, and has had almost 14,000 hits in the last 6 hours – please make sure you sign up now!
‘No’ to arcane legislation restricting the BBCs right to show the breaking of canon law. ‘Yes’ to Rev. – the programme that finally dares to show the real issues faced by real priests today

PS Happy April Fools Day 2014

Wear Bridge Zip Wire – Metro offers free rides to promote the new extension to the network!

Plans to open the zip wire that runs from the Wear Bridge to the riverside are exactly the sort of bold ideas that this city needs for the 21st Century.

The zip wire was first used during the Olympics, when the official torch came to Sunderland in spectacular fashion – whizzing down the wire from the Bridge to the riverside. The zip wire was retained and has been used extensively by charity fundraisers ever since. The Sunderland Tourist board and ‘The Metro’ (the company run by Nexus) have announced a pilot scheme to launch the zip wire service throughout the summer months to promote the new Metro extensions to Seaham and Doxford Park.

The zip wire, to be known as the ‘Wear Wire’, will connect the city centre to St Peter’s Campus and the National Glass Centre, providing a much needed and innovative boost to Sunderland’s summer time tourist economy. In June, July and August, users will pay between £5-9 for a single or return, and will be able to register online to book to use the service, or simply turn up on the day.

To advertise the new scheme, Nexus are offering free rides (subject to health and insurance checks) today till lunchtime and I'm looking forward to overcoming my fear of heights and simply go for it!

The scheme is partially funded by the University of Sunderland, and Students and Staff will be able to buy discounted tickets. The route of the ‘Wear Wire’ will substantially reduce the time it takes to get from one campus to the other, and is sure to become very popular with students.

For those brave enough to have a go on the ‘Wear Wire’, it will be operating for free today between the hours of 8am and 12 noon. Head to the South end of the Wear Bridge (don’t leave it too late if you want to ensure a ride!)

PS Happy April Fools Day 2014

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Liberation Theology: Encountering the God of Life!

This coming weekend, Sunderland will host a small gathering of people interested in, or committed to, the theology of liberation. Anthony Reddie will be there encouraging us to rethink how we understand Black Theology, Rosie Venner will be there to look at the issues of feminism and development after her recent trip to Bolivia. But most importantly, people and practitioners will be there who have struggled against poverty and injustice, and in that struggle have rediscovered the God of Life.

There is no other God. We have a God who wants us to have life and life in abundance. God so loved the world she sent a child into our midst, born into poverty, living life on the margin of empire. A child who grew so wise and so brave that those with power despised him and plotted to destroy all he stood for.

Jesus took on the powers of his time, and at first they believed that they had snuffed out his light, they hung him on a wooden cross and believed that brutality and violence would have the final say.

How wrong they were. 2000 years later we walk tall with a living God who still defies those who exercise injustice and cruelty. We believe in a theology, a walk with God, that liberates us from our own oppressions - that frees us from the death of consumerism, from the death of violence, from the death that comes with patriarchy and each hierarchy that crucifies those below.

We believe in a theology that challenges all abuses of power and instead brings us closer to each other as human beings. We believe in a theology that listens to the cry of the poor, recognising that it is our own cry. We believe in a theology that values creation, that protects the earth and all living upon it. We believe in a theology where our own hands must get dirty if we are to change the systems that crush the many and enrich the few.

In Sunderland this weekend you can meet a few of those who have found the joy of the Holy Spirit at work in the most desperate of places. We will share our stories of despair and of hope. We will listen to each other in love, encourage each other, and challenge each other to be the people God created us to be.

If you can't join us in Sunderland this weekend, then join us in spirit by renewing your commitment to the God of equality and justice, the God of hope and of healing. This is the God of life. This is the Theology of Liberation.

Monday 24 March 2014

Bacardi. Unshameable

I saw the new Bacardi advert last night - 'Untameable' and it made realise that the company has made a sizable shift in its advertising strategy. For years it has been trying to link itself to young people's identification with the revolutionary spirit of Cuba, when in reality - it is a nasty right wing company was booted out of Cuba in 1959.

I think the new strategy will fail miserably, because fundamentally, I have hope that most people, especially the young, still prefer a humane socialist government (that has lifted millions out of poverty, gives free education to the region and sends more doctors around the world than the World Health Organisation) to a greedy capitalist company that has been responsible for promoting terrorism.

It's new adverts may work in the US, where the blockade against Cuba is seen as acceptable (it causes horrific shortages of basic supplies and medicines, but has never shaken the revolution) - but I'm not sure will go down so well in Europe.

Bacardi were not kicked out of Cuba in 1959 because they were 'cool' but because of their links to the US backed dictator Batista, who tortured and oppressed the population of the country, and turned it into a playground of the Miami super rich, whilst millions in Cuba suffered horrible poverty.

In advertising its lead brand white rum, Bacardi used to play on its Cuban roots, misleading drinkers into believing that Bacardi still has some links with the island. In fact the Bacardi empire is based in the Bahamas and the Bacardi company broke all ties with Cuba after the Revolution of 1959, when its cronies in the hated Batista dictatorship were overthrown by a popular guerrilla movement led by Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.

The new adverts at last make it clear that Bacardi have no links with socialist Cuba (hilariously, Bacardi still sponsor the 'Che' brand of bars)

Since 1959 the Bacardi company has backed illegal and violent attempts to undermine the Cuban Revolution, including funding the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF), a virulently anti-Castro right-wing exile organisation based in Miami, which has been responsible for systematic acts of terrorism against Cuba. Bacardi’s lawyers also helped draft the US Helms-Burton Act, which extends the United States’ blockade of Cuba to third countries, in breach of international trade law. So central was the role of Bacardi’s lawyer, Ignacio E Sanchez (a CANF member) in establishing Helms-Burton that US Senator William Dengue said the law should be renamed the Helms-Bacardi Protection Act.

The Helms-Burton Act was designed to tighten still further the United States blockade of Cuba. The blockade prevents the sale of food, medicines and other essential supplies to Cuba and threatens other countries (including Britain) if they trade with Cuba. It has been estimated that the blockade has cost Cuba over $40 billion in lost production and trade. Every year the US blockade is overwhelmingly condemned by the United Nations.

'Untameable'? I prefer the tagline 'Unshameable'. I going to celebrate their shameless adverts by continuing to boycott Bacardi products, and buying myself a nice big bottle of Havana Club.

Its made in Cuba, the truly untameable country.

Friday 21 March 2014

Back in the USSR....

When I visited Ukraine in 2009 I was struck by the disjointed nature of the country. We were in the town of Lviv, a beautiful place that looked towards the grand cities of Central Europe. The easy way to get into an argument was to call it 'Lvov' by accident. Lviv was the national 'Ukrainian' name for the city, and Lvov was the 'Russian Ukrainian' Name.

Everywhere we went, we were reminded of the 'independence' of Ukraine, and the fierce sense of self determination since the fall of the old soviet union. The most famous restaurant in Lviv was extraordinary. Before you were seated, you had to shoot an air rifle at a target with Stalin's head on it. We were constantly reminded that a third of the population died under Russian rule in the 1950's.

Quite frankly, it was clear that the gap between the Ukrainian nationalists and the Russian nationalists was always going to end in bloodshed. I'm actually just surprised that it has been less violent than it has been. Russia had all the military cards, and could easily taken much more of Ukrainian territory than just the Crimea.

The West is making noises of course, but they are clearly not up for a serious struggle over the annexed area - Crimea is clearly and undeniably back in the USSR.

The real question will be, can Ukraine become a stable 'European' nation free from the fascist element that were so clearly part of the coup against the elected government. We hope and pray that peace can be restored soon. Ukraine is one of the most beautiful countries I've ever visited and the people are hospitable and proud. I'm quietly confident that the situation will improve. And if the people of Crimea choose to be part of Putin's mafia style empire - more fool them - but it is simply not worth losing any more lives over.

Friday 14 March 2014

Thank You Tony Benn - A Life Well Lived

So many of us will have happy memories of Tony Benn, a man who appeared whenever a good cause needed supporting. His political life is amazing, even prior to becoming an MP in 1950. Unlike Bob Crow who died earlier this week - there is no sadness or shock at the news of his death - Tony had a full life and lived it to the upmost.

My first meeting with him was one of the most inspirational moments in my life. I was 18 years old, and earnestly doing my politics A level. We had been taken to Westminster Methodist Central Hall to listen to speakers from all the mainstream parties.

Tony was clear, funny and impressed everyone there. But it was his answer to one question that struck me most. I was at the time, heavily into the left, but had also recently become a Christian, and found myself suffering huge derision from my comrades who could mostly not accept my faith. When Tony was asked why he had become a socialist, he gave a remarkable reply.

"It is easier to say why I became a Christian" he said, and explained how he had rejected mainstream religion, but had encountered Jesus as a person who believed that the world could be a better place, and followed that belief to the very end.

That response meant so much to me, an acknowledgement that my faith journey could also be a political one. I was so moved I did the oddest thing. I wanted to thank him, so I chased after him when the conference ended. He disappeared into a room, so I followed him in. Embarrassingly, it turned out to be the toilets! He looked a little surprised, but graciously shook my hand and accepted my thanks!

I encountered Tony on many occasions since, mostly on demos and conferences for socialism and for peace - but I'll never forget that first meeting.

Tony, you leave a huge legacy - we will miss you greatly. Thank you for a life well lived.

Tuesday 18 February 2014

Anger and sadness at bishops stance on same sex marriage.

Having just come back from the SCM conference, I've been a little slow to react to the news from the Bishops regarding forthcoming legislation on same sex marriage. To pre-empt changes in the law, the Bishops have issued guidelines that effectively do three things:

1) ensure that no priest or church, regardless of how much they might be in favour of same sex marriage, are allowed to bless such a union.

2) to say that no-one will be allowed to enter the church and serve as deacon, priest or bishop if they have had a legal same sex marriage.

3) to warn that anyone who is already ordained is forbidden from entering such a marriage. If they do, will face risk of sanctions (even expulsion from ordained ministry)

The new Archbishop has made a disappointing error of judgement in pushing the bishops in this direction for a number of reasons:

1) The Church of England, slowly recovering from the shame of its slow acceptance of women bishops, now looks even deeper out of touch with issues of equality and justice.

2) The church hierarchy has now officially adopted not a pastoral stance on this issue (as one would expect from bishops) but an authoritarian one. Effectively, it has said that it will not tolerate any other position, whilst trying to make out that it is in some sort of 'dialogue'.

3) The bishops are making it much harder for many of us involved in mission, especially those of us who work with young people. The youth of today seem to have a much better moral compass than the church does, and they ask themselves, 'why would anyone want to be part of an institutionally homophobic organisation?'

4) They have broken the hearts of many faithful and committed clergy, many of whom long for the opportunity to express themselves through marriage.

5) The Church of England will face the public humiliation every time it now seeks to punish clergy and exclude people from ministry because of their sexuality and legal marital status.

It is such a shame. The Bishops could have adopted a more pastoral role, and also allowed for the diversity of opinion within the church. Many clergy, churches and even some bishops (quietly) want the freedom to bless the marriages of faithful LGBT Christians in their congregations and dioceses. Most of us understand that not all Christians and Churches accept same sex marriage, and nobody should be forced to do a blessing or have a Gay married priest if their congregation does not accept it. But refusing to allow those of us that do accept LGBT couples the chance of acknowledging that is a denial of our calling and ministry. It is quite simply wrong, in the same way that all discriminatory practice is wrong.

Like the vote not to allow women bishops last year, I hope that the error of this guidance will quickly be rectified. But I suspect it will be a much longer and tougher battle. Let us be compassionate in our debates, but also determined to point out when our leadership is wounding the body of Christ, and needs to repent.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Looting and heartbreak in the floodlands

I've just come off the phone to my Mum down near the Thames, and the news is just getting worse and worse regarding the flooding. The council estate that I grew up in near Staines, is now mostly flooded. People have been evacuated in boats and there is chaos everywhere.

My Dad and brother have been trying to buy sandbags to protect our house, but they are tackling a problem not much noted in the press. If they leave them for any period of time, they just keep being nicked. My mum reports white vans cruising the worst affected areas, with homes being looted when left abandoned.

The worst flooding the area have ever experienced, almost certainly caused by global warming, is being dealt with by a government of climate change sceptics. The political intervention is too little to late.

And while politicians wade through the leafy parts of the South East/West - I've yet to see them in the council estates of the South, and mention how they intend to stop the poorest and most vulnerable communities from suffering from looting and having their water defences stolen.

First things first, help the most vulnerable - but that is almost impossible when the public sector has been almost decimated in the South. We have destroyed our own defence systems, from privatised utilities to policing.

These floods force us to realise that not only is our planet fragile and needs taking care of, but so to are our communities - made sick by the processes of our 'market led' economy.

Friday 7 February 2014

Singing for freedom

Yesterday I attended a singing workshop run by my good friend Clare Hunt (from the band Hyldas, a celtic/spiritual ensemble.) It was for Sanctuary seekers and refugees, and let those of all abilities have a go at the art of singing.

Clare led us through South African protest songs, songs of joy and hope - and at the end all of us, even poor singers like me, really felt like we'd achieved a lot. It was magical hearing the harmonies kick in, and very moving to see one women with tears of joy on her cheeks during one moving song based on Julian of Norwich's line 'All will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well'

I just wanted to say how wonderful it was, and how grateful I am to those who use music to heal wounds and bring unity to people who are often isolated by society.

Peter Seeger's death suddenly reminded me of how important music is to our journey of liberation and hope - and it was good and timely to be reminded of that yesterday amongst friends.

Wednesday 5 February 2014

How 'The Jump' legitimises the illegal occupation of Palestine

'The Jump' is pretty trashy television, and is part of the inevitable build up to what looks like the most repressive and homophobic Winter Olympics imaginable.

But it is not the poor quality television or even the lack of will to address Russia's vicious discriminatory policies that bother me most about Chanel 4s latest 'reality TV' offering.

It is the shows sponsorship by 'SodaStream'. Many of us thought that SodaStream had been eradicated at the end of the eighties on the grounds that each supposedly different flavour of carbonated water tasted exactly the same. It turns out though that they are still going strong, producing their machines in parts of occupied Palestine.

The Israeli fizzy drinks machine-maker has a factory in the industrial zone of Maale Adumim - a Jewish settlement built on occupied land to the east of Jerusalem.

Under most interpretations of international law - although not Israel's - building homes and businesses on such territory is illegal.

I only found out that SodaStream were such a toxic company when Oxfam announced that Scarlet Johansson was no longer able to continue as one of their ambassadors because of her advertising deal with the company. Oxfam quite rightly could not endorse an ambassador who openly supported the breaking UN resolutions concerning the illegal settlements.

So another reason to hate 'The Jump'. I can now only think of one thing that could be worse: 'Splash' sponsored by

Now's the time to put the arms trade on trial!

Yesterdays decision in a Stratford Court to acquit 5 Christian peace activists, is a huge blow for the way the police deal with the biannual DSEi arms fair.

Throughout the two day trial, activists constantly reminded the courts that whilst they were being prosecuted for trying to prevent a crime during the London arms fair, none of the companies who had been expelled the same day for trying to sell illegal torture equipment, faced any threat of prosecution.

These five brave activists had blocked the entrance to the Excel centre where the fair was being held in September last year. Myself and several others had acted as decoys, and had been escorted away by the police while the smartly dressed activists were able to get close enough to the security gates and joined themselves together in prayer.

They conducted themselves with great dignity, and the judge remarked during the hearing that their behaviour had been exemplary.

The police had however not behaved as well as could be hoped, barking out contradictory orders to the protesters, and failing to be aware of the criminal activities that were taking place in the conference centre behind them.

But these 5 lovely folk should never had had to go through this ordeal in the first place. It is a system that allows and encourages the sale of arms to dodgy dictatorships that ought to be prosecuted. The police ought to send as many officers as it uses to arrest peaceful protesters into the exhibition halls to monitor which companies are selling illegal weapons, and to arrest those responsible. For the last 10 years at this exhibition, companies have be found to have been conducting illegal activity, yet no one has been dealt with in the courts.

Its time for the government to stop harassing peaceful protesters and wasting tax payers money on ridiculous cases, and start spending its time and money putting the real criminals on trial.

Thursday 30 January 2014

Holocaust Memorial Day

The art installation at the Minster was a truly heart shattering experience. For the Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration, artist Barrie West has created a gut wrenching piece of work, with a breeze block smashing a sheet of glass over a picture of a small girl.

The piece was a dramatic nod to the 'Kristallnacht', when in November 1938, in Germany and Austria, Jewish homes, shops and Synagogues were destroyed. 'The night of broken glass' was the orchestrated start of the annihilation of the Jewish people by the Nazi's. On that first night, at least 91 Jews were killed and 30,000 were rounded up for the concentration camps.

The Minster Yurt was full of shoes heaped in a pile, representing the 6 million who died in the camps. The shoes were surrounded by pictures of Auschwitz, Belsen and Dachau. It was harrowing but moving, particularly as music by Gorecki played gently in the background. I sat there with Tony, one of the few remaining Jews in Sunderland. He sat in silence, and outside revealed that one side of his family disappeared completely in the camps.

Some have argued that Holocaust events deflect attention and take away from the reality of how the Jewish authorities are dealing with the Palestinians. I disagree. Whenever horrors against humanity rear their ugly head, we need to expose them and remember them, in the attempt to make sure that they never reoccur. Exposing Hitler's genocide give us an opportunity to understand why Jewish people are so protective of what they see as their 'Homeland'. If we have no understanding of this, then we will never achieve the dialogue we need in the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Thank you to Barrie, and all who helped put this moving memorial service together, so that we can say together 'Never Again'

Sunday 26 January 2014

Homelessness Sunday

Homelessness Sunday was marked in Sunderland by a service at the local Methodist Church, followed by the usual Sunday night drop in for marginalised men and women who are living on the edge of society.

The local authority is fond of saying that there are no people actually living on the streets in the city, and for that reason, along with a lack of volunteers, our Winter Night Shelter decided to close down after the first weekend in January.

I went down to the Sunday night drop in to find out if it was true, and if most people were managing to find some appropriate shelter, so had no need for a church floor. Over coffee and soup, I met Marc, Roy and 'No'. They had all been sleeping rough over the last two to three weeks. They were looking after each other as they slept in the subway near St Peter's metro station.

Cold and in a state, the people at the drop in supplied these three men with sandwiches, sleeping bags and encouraged them to keep presenting themselves to the local housing office.

Marc told me how he was now considering shop lifting as, even if he got caught, life in a cell was much better than life on the streets. 

I will chase up the local authorities tomorrow to see if they actually offer help to these guys, and to find out why they fail to class them as rough sleepers.

In the meantime, perhaps we need to reopen our churches as the weather takes a serious turn for the worse. Homelessness Sunday is about making those without shelter visible in our churches and in our communities. Then, and only then, will we stand with the broken ones and ask why Roy, Marc and 'No' still sleep on the streets in 21st Century Britain.

Friday 3 January 2014

Celebrating 55 years of the Cuban Revolution

One of the criticisms I received about by otherwise non-controversial book (after which this blog is named) was my support of those 'nasty and repressive' communists in Cuba. How could a Priest support such an 'atheist' state?

I was ordained to the priesthood by Miguel Tamayo, a Cuban Bishop, and so I actually try to stay better informed about the country than simply reading 'The Mail' or listening to the BBC (which today, to mark the 55th anniversary of the revolution, did a facile feature on the cost of new cars in the country) For Christians, Cuba has a strong faith history and still provides inspiration for many theologians of liberation.

The Cuban revolution in January 1959 not only saw the end of US backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, but it heralded over half a century of effective resistance to global capitalism. It has meant that excellent education, good health and the economics of sharing has been a reality for the Cuban people and for hundreds of millions of people worldwide influenced by the ongoing revolution.

There is no perfect government, Cuba has it's flaws. As I read Fidel's autobiography, even he admits the errors made in the name of communism. These problems cannot be explained away by the left simply as fallout from the vicious US economic blockade of Cuba, or as an inevitable reaction to the terrorism dished out by anti-Castro forces. However, the economic and political errors of the Cuban government are dwarfed by its huge humanitarian achievements, it's international contribution to poverty alleviation, and it's profound critique of the horrors of global capitalism and US imperialism. For these reasons, I celebrate 55 years of struggle and hope, and raise a glass of Havana Club rum to the Cuban people.

In this coming year, let us try to be better educated about the successes of this small but determined island. Join the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. If you can afford it, visit Cuba. Drink Cuban rum (Havana Club) not right wing anti-Cuban terrorist supporters like Bacardi.

Above all, let us remember that the world around us is one that we have the power to recreate, we do not have to simply accept the solutions given to us by the political and economic elite. Cuba shows us that unbridled capitalism does not have to be the only path. Communists and Christians can unite behind the economics of sharing and the belief in a better future for all of humanity.