The Language of War

As we as a country agreed to wage war in Iraq for the third time in 25 years I found myself getting really wound up by the headlines that declared this latest bout of military intervention. It started in Costa when I spotted a Daily Mail headline which announced a  ‘Three Year War to Crush Jihadis.’

I am instinctively anti-war as someone who seeks to follow a spiritual leader who told his disciples to love our enemeies and pray for those who persecute us,  but I understand that something needs to be done to alleviate the unspeakable suffering of minorities in Northern Iraq and Syria. Its not a clear cut situation but I am yet to understand how the Daily Mail, or anyone at all, can be clear that his war will end in three years,  leaving peace and stability in this troubled region.

However this kind of cavalier fortune-telling was not what really wound me up about the headline. The word ‘crush’ as something it is desirable to do to a group of people left me very disturbed. We do not usually want to crush people. We might crush a bug or possibly an abstract occurence like an uprising or a rebellion but not a person. I have never forgotten watching a film way back in 1987 about how the military in America used techniques to dehumanize the enemy in their training camps.No-one can condone the behaviour of IS fighters but they do remain human.

One of my favourite writers, Anthony De Mello, says that we empower the demons we fight. Are we empowering the bits in us that are capable of treating people as less than human in order to fight those we regard as genocidal? Dehumanizing people is the third step of a process in which the seventh is genocide Can we fight a group of people while maintaining our belief in their humanity? .

But the word that actually wound me up the most was the word Jihadi. I assumed that it was only the tabloids that were flinging this word around to mean terrorist, fanatic or extremist. But watching the BBC News later I heard it used by all sorts of people including politicians and clergy as the generally accepted word to describe the IS fighters.

I thought the word ‘Jihad’ carried a sacred meaning with the understanding that the Greater Jihad was the internal struggle for peace and the striving to root out our own violent tendencies whereas the Lesser Jihad is the external struggle for a communal peace – a struggle which could under very particular circumstances  include Holy War. At least one part of the BBC adopts this definition.  While there is not a direct equivalent to this in the Christian faith it seems as though labelling these murderous fighters ‘Jihadis’ might be like labelling those who fought in the crusades as  disciples.

I know how I would feel if my faith was coming under fire with careless words and I do not want my friends and neighbours to feel their religion is being villified.  I have good friends on both sides of the debate on the validity of these air strikes but whatever side you are on, or if like me you are undecided, please choose your language carefully to describe our enemies and perhaps find it in your heart to pray for them as well as for all those who are suffering because of them.

Perfect Worship

This weekend I went to a church that was so similar to my own church it felt uncanny. In fact in the last month I have been to three other churches that are more or less like my own.  Being in places just slightly different from my home place of worship has  really helped me have a look at the way we do things week by week. It is hard to be objective after 20 odd years, but visiting otherchurches really seems to help me reflect on what now seems to be normal. Here are some random thoughts about worship from a very Anglican perspective. Some (all) of them will be obvious to some (all) of you.

  • The worship that you experience is hugely shaped by the way all the people gathered are worshipping. I visited a much smaller church over the summer not far from home. It wasn’t rocking the latest trends in worship or topping the charts of choral singing but the authenticy of the worshippers with whom I gathered, also demonstrated by their welcome to strangers, meant my experience of worship was incredibly profound. It is really hard to say how that quality of worship was evident but it was something about prayer, about concentration and about a desire to learn. Perhaps it came because the people gathered in that building wanted to be there together, with one another and with God – they appeared to have very litle else on their agenda.
  • Worship is about touching the eternal and there are hints in scripture and our tradition that music is part of the heavenly realm. I have never really got that as I do not have a musical bone in my body. But during the service this  weekend  at St Werburgh in Spondon, music and song were used to draw the congregation to worship and frame the words of the liturgy in a way that I  found helped me access even the bits of the service that can be a little bit dull on occasions. ( I know I shouldn’t find some versions of the Eucharistic prayer and the creed dull but I do, sometimes.)  Some of this music involved lacing simple meditative songs through the liturgy which engendered a sense of prayerfulness, other bits involved  sung call and response that invited participation and some was simply hymns that had been chosen well to build on the themes emerging from the liturgy and scripture.
  • As a minister, the only important outcome is what happened between God and the congregation. It is not important that you felt that your were on top form, looked great in your cassock, led the singing in a splendid voice or preached your best sermon. Our worship is a corporate act of discipleship which shapes us by opening the door for us together to encounter God. ‘How did it go?’ asked after a service is not a question that can be answered by the minister with a sentence beginning ‘I felt……. ‘
  • Part b of the above. My sermons should not be like an organ recital – they are more of a hymn accompaniment. They do not have to demonstrate my grasp of theology, my love of language and my wealth of experience. What they do have to do is enable the congregation to draw deeply from the scripture, the liturgy, the prayers and the Eucharist in order to participate in the mission of God.

This is a very short blog as I know very little about worship and always felt slightly confused by a loving God who needs us to gather once a week to remind him how great he is. However worship as the shaping of our soul, the working of hearts and the moulding of our minds I am starting to get. I am always  niggled  by the verse in Matthew 5 v 48 in which Jesus urges his disciples to be ‘perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.’  That feels to me like quite a transformation but it is in worship that we can start to be formed in the image of perfection.

Speaking (and listening) Properly

‘Let me hear you speaking, in accents clear and true.’ …another line from a lovely hymn that I always find troubling and one which leapt into my head when a staff member at a school we visited today pledged to ‘knock that Birmingham accent’ out of my daughter. (I am now desperately trying to put her off going there!)

This week I have been lucky to join some of the sessions of the Diocesan Communicator’s Conference. Church communicators from across the country and the Anglican communion (some brought in by skype)  gathered in Birmingham to think about the way forward for their craft. It is four years since I did that job and 20 years since I trained as a journalist and much has changed in that time.

When I trained, I learnt to gather stories and information and rewrite them into a consistent voice that reflected my organisation or publication and then allow other people to hear them. One of the reasons I left my PR role was that I realised that this mediated and monotone way of communicating was not the way forward and we had the technology to bring people together to speak and listen without an organisational filter. The skills of a communications ‘expert’ have changed. No longer are we looking for people who can put over a single message well and clearly but we are looking for people who can facilitate conversations that are multi-tonal, multi-faceted and dynamic. Since I left Birmingham this has started to happen – my successor has started to break open the conversation and use video, text, photography and e-mail to enable people to speak to one another. Like a good priest who is  interested in developing the discipleship and theology of others in their congregation, Birmingham’s current communicator is interested in sharing other people’s stories and giving a platform to a myriad of voices rather than telling people what to think.

In the same way, at a recent talk to the Lunar Society, Birmingham City Council’s new Chief Executive, Mark Rogers, said the next step in addressing some of the city’s issues lay more in the process of having discussions about difficult topics than in the answers that may come out of those debates. That seems to be a great step forward in an outcome-driven sector but it leaves a massive question about who takes part in these conversations. How do we bring together the people who need to speak and the people who need to listen in a way that can influence the policy and systems of Europe’s largest council? I am not sure what the answer is but I really hope that we as a city give it a go. We need to reach way beyond the usual suspects, we need to stop hearing about people and hear from people who are affected by decisions made by the power-brokers in this region.

If we as a church in Birmingham are going to be part of this kind of solution to inequality and social exclusion we might need to think not only about what is happening at diocesan level but also to consider whose voices are heard during in our local places of  worship and times of gathering. I am getting to really enjoy preaching but how can I widen the discourse and include the voices of those on the edges of church or society in my sermons?

Just reading a brief write-up from a Greenbelt seminar recently I was really struck by  Nadia Bolz-Weber’s idea of welcoming a stranger by inviting them to have a liturgical role during the service, the first time they rock up in church. That seemed a brilliant idea – if it is not too intimidating.  But are we happy to let the faltering and uncertain speak in to our liturgy?  Do we only want to hear from the theological certain or can we learn from those whose doubts threaten to overwhelm them or whose questions are uncomfortably close to our own hidden wonderings? Can we hear from those who work outside the church and live their faith in challenging situations where they find God in those they meet and in the places the visit? Do we welcome every voice from every background  or do we really believe at some level that when God speaks it will be with an accent clear and true?





Holiday or Holydays – on Spiritual Flabbiness

I love holidays. Especially planning, researching and booking them but I also enjoy the actual holiday, the new place to explore, the time with the family and a break of routine. As much as I love the idea of holidays, I hate the idea of routine – it’s  a life-long phobia. I can remember as a teenager dreading having to sing the hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind which contains the words: “Let our ordered life confess the beauty of they peace,” because the last thing I ever wanted was an ordered life but I was quite keen on the beauty of peace.

Today was our first day back in routine as the three kids had their first full day at school. At 7.30 the household shook off sleep and my daughter appeared in the doorway to drag me off for our daily dose of Pilates. Over the last few weeks I have been feeling guiltier and guiltier as friends tell me about their 40 lengths before breakfast or map their 10 mile runs on Facebook (you know who you are). Our Pilates habit had taken a serious battering in the holidays while my calorie intake had been boosted by half-board hotels, nights out and meals with friends. Some of my wardrobe is currently not available for wearing. So the return to routine, with its accompanying discipline is in some ways very welcome.

The church my sons go to is the sort of church that has sermon series. The series this summer holiday has been on Spiritual Flabbiness. A key text has been from 1 Timothy 4 – the Message version – which goes like this: “Stay clear of silly stories that get dressed up as religion. Exercise daily in God—no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever. You can count on this. Take it to heart.”

I think we Anglicans could learn from the timing of this Sermon Series and perhaps give up some of our Ordinary Time for a season of Spiritual Flabbiness. I know the root of holidays is holy-days but I actually find that in all the fun and excitement and freedom of being out of routine I can find myself spiritually piling on the pounds. I tend not to join my church for Morning Prayer, I very often go to bed without reading my daily Bible notes, I may well miss Church if I am away and I am more likely to read a trashy novel than some heavy theological tome. I probably don’t notice any difference at first but then I realise that I am  (even) less patient than normal, I am less generous or gracious to my neighbour and my timing or responses to people  are a little bit off.

As holidays are one of my favourite things in the world I would love to find a way of making them holy without losing the freedom and excitement of travel and adventure. If anyone has any answers or tips, recommended reading or practices that might help I would love to hear them. But please don’t tell me that only routines and order speak of ‘The beauty of thy peace.’