Lord of Time

Over a year ago, during the period of time when I was trying to work out what the 2014/15 academic year was going to look like, my ethics tutor approached me after evening prayer and said that a word had come to him during prayer which he felt was for me. He asked if I liked Doctor Who (I’m indifferent to it, but know enough to get a reference), and explained that he felt as though God was emphasising his role as the Lord of Time – or “Time Lord”. It was a clear reference to my being at the mercy of God’s timing, and was somewhat reassuring…

…only somewhat, because – as I explained last year – a curacy was not forthcoming. Instead, I made plans for further study and returned to St Mellitus to study a MA. But this year, these words came back. As I struggled to find the right curacy, it was a struggle to remember that God had the timing under control.

The words of one of my classmates also came back to me. At our final college residential last year, on the Sunday when I had come before college and explained that I didn’t know what I was going to be doing next year, she told me that she had a vision of me returning the following year, with an amazing story. As church after church failed to work out this year, I began to doubt that I would have a story for the class of 2015.

This year has been a struggle. Not finding the right curacy in good time for the second year running is not to be recommended. This isn’t the place to chronicle what happened – suffice to say, there were places that were not right; good decisions; bitter disappointments; and less good decisions. When ordinands who began their 2 year course AFTER you began the curacy process then find their curacies BEFORE you do, life can feel rather frustrating. (That might be an understatement!)

I didn’t entirely lose hope. I did trust that God had it under control. But it felt as though I was consistently hitting s brick wall. Come the first May bank holiday, and an annual Christian junket, I was without a curacy and rather low. While picking up a book at the junket, I ran into a 2014 Deacon and his wife, who, upon hearing of my situation, immediately prayed for me – on the street, in front of the Hammersmith Apollo. Within 24 hours, I’d received an email from the Bishop of Stepney regarding a very promising sounding post.

God had not forgotten! The post was indeed promising, and by the second May bank holiday, my curacy had been formally agreed. Sharing my news with the college chaplain – who was on the verge of crying with happiness – she declared: “God is faithful!” I replied: “…but slow.”

As a good friend retorted when she heard this story, God’s timing is not slow, it is perfect. We just don’t have any control over it and we don’t like it! Yes, maybe getting my curacy sorted out earlier might have avoided some issues (like some of my closest friends being absent from my ordination thanks to a mutual friend’s wedding). But would one of the earlier curacies have been the right place? Is the curacy I’m now taking up not the best thing that’s crossed my radar in the entire 22 months in which I was searching? No to the first question and yes to the latter.

Yesterday, I stood in front of the ordinands of St Mellitus College and shared an amazing story of God’s faithfulness. As I walked to the lectern, I was cheered to such an extent that I was nearly undone before I’d uttered any words. My ‘final’ Sunday of 2014 was redeemed, and in God’s timing, I am to be ordained at St. Paul’s Cathedral on July 4th.

So where am I going? The green fields of North London!

A ‘N’ postcode for the first time since 2006 (another 3 years to add to my current total of 18 years up there). Specifically, the parish of Christ Church Highbury, upon Highbury Fields, deep in the heart of Arsenal territory.

It’s a part-time curacy, which is exciting. I’m not entirely sure what will make up the rest of my time (there’s a job interview on Wednesday for something that might work), but freelancing has worked very well for me this year, and God has provided exponentially. I won’t be moving there immediately – accommodation won’t be available until late this/early next year, but that’s a relief, given my need to write a thesis over the summer!

I’m also excited about the curacy itself. I’m looking forward to getting stuck back into church ministry after a year away (from church leadership, not church!), and entering the next phase of my training. There’s lots about Christ Church itself that I’m excited about too – more of which will follow…

But for now, it is with huge relief and great anticipation that I look forward to my very imminent ordination!!

Looking out at St Paul's, 2010Looking out at St Paul’s from Tate Modern, April 2010. (As used on my ordination invitations. With thanks to @notthatandym)

A Political Post Mortem

I blame 1997. For those of us whose first experience of political engagement was the biggest landslide victory of post-war Britain, every election following was going to be an anti-climax. It was the last election in which I could not vote, but the first election in which I stuck a Labour poster in my bedroom window. It was the election I was forbidden from staying up for, thanks to pesky GCSE exams. And, it was the election that resulted in a hastily opened bottle of bubbly staining our kitchen ceiling, in the frenzy of celebrating the demise of Michael Portillo in Enfield South. 1997 is legend and few elections will ever live up to it. Far from things can only get better, it was more a case of things can only get worse…

…and worse…

…and worser.

Like many, this election’s unexpected result has depressed me. Expletives were uttered into my pillows as I watched good, committed and hard working politicians fall, one after another. The morning after’s non-alcohol induced hangover featured realisation after realisation of what the world was going to be like FOR ANOTHER FIVE YEARS. The NHS. Welfare. Education. Oh, education! At the end of the next five years, how many of my teaching friends will still be in their jobs? Does Britain really not care about these things??

But, within a couple of hours, I’d decided to take hold of the situation in the only way I know how: getting involved. A week on, and I’m convinced that this is the only way to approach the next five years (and beyond). Don’t sit at home whining on Facebook, do something!!

Rejoining Labour

By lunch time I’d rejoined the Labour Party – something I’m pretty sure I’d meant to do five years ago, but had never quite got around to it. This election was the first in which friends of mine (actual friends, not just random acquaintances) ran for office. Several friends stood for selection; a few made it to parliamentary candidate; and one was elected as a local councillor. These friends are activists, they’ve joined parties, made a commitment and that’s one of the ways in which they engage with the system. It’s a far more positive way to engage than party-bashing on social media! [Other political parties are available, obviously.]

Ed Miliband at Citizens AssemblyEd speaking to the Citizens Assembly.

If you’re not particularly partisan and simply want to act justly, get involved in Citizens UK. My first introduction to their work was at a college seminar last year, but recently I’ve been offered the option of doing their training in ‘organising’ and getting involved in the local network in London. It’s not yet present in every part of the country, but if you don’t have a network near you, perhaps you could help start one? On the Monday before the election, I found myself at their national assembly (thanks to a last minute ticket) and was stunned by the diversity of the 2,000+ gathering. Vicars sat alongside Imams and Rabbis; the rich impact of immigration upon our society was demonstrated; and people seeking to make a real impact upon society. (My friend Alexandra was one of the vicars present and she wrote a brilliant reflection on the event.) The three main party leaders had been invited to speak (although Cameron dropped out at the last minute) and it was a brilliant example of parties engaging with genuine activism.

No Foodbank TodayMy local Foodbank was my polling station – and the election forced the postponement of that week’s session.

Or, if you just want to help on a really basic, local level, find your nearest Foodbank and support them – provide food, volunteer or both! Unfortunately, it looks like they may be even more necessary in future years. A friend of mine was so stirred up that Friday morning that she and some Twitter friends created #FoodbankFriday. Not only are they going to support their local Foodbank every week, they’re going to make a noise about it – so that they can protest about why these services are needed in the first place. A brilliant idea that takes little effort (she’s also committed to using her supermarket loyalty vouchers to buy food too), and can make a big difference in people’s lives. In amongst all the stories of woe I’ve heard and read about in the last five years, it’s the stories of those using Foodbanks that have touched me most. We’re a modern country, people should not be going hungry – end of story.

Finally, if you’re of a churchy persuasion, it could also be worth looking up The Centre for Theology and Community. Their most recent resource is the ‘Seeing Change’ course, which we’ve been using at church over the last few Sundays. [I’ve actually only made one of the sessions, but it was jolly good and this recommendation also acts as a note to self to use it in the future.] A series of four videos and group discussions, it puts some of the big issues of today into a theological context and then encourages people to get involved.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, if you’re upset at the way the election turned out, please don’t just moan about it – do something. Unless you do, there’s no chance of anything changing in the future. Politics isn’t something that happens in a fancy building in Westminster, it’s interactions between human beings on the most basic of levels.

Tweeting Up

This evening, for the second time this year, I’m speaking on one of my favourite subjects: why the church/Christians ought to take social media seriously. If you’re London-based and churchy, you’re very welcome to come along – full details here.

Back in January, I had two hours with the students of Westminster Theological Centre as part of their Christianity in Contemporary Culture module. The hours flew by, thanks to a large group of students who proved to be very happy to get involved in discussion, despite it being the final day of a week-long residential. I’d been concerned that 2 hours would be difficult to fill, but I had material left over! Thanks lovely WTC students!

I’d meant to write up some of my work from that lecture here, but never quite got around to it. Tonight’s session provides an ideal opportunity to do so though, as in contrast to January’s gig, this is under half an hour on a topic which I’ve now proved I can speak on at length! This post also enables me to post a few things that tonight’s attendees may find helpful, but could also be handy for other readers too.

Firstly, some discoveries I made…

1. Whatever we might think about the negatives of social media – whatever it might be that prompts us not to get involved – we need to remember that at least it’s a choice that we get to make. Elsewhere in the world, that choice simply isn’t on the table, because social media or the resources needed to have it, does not exist.

Global social media penetration 2014

Also, at least at the start of 2014, only North America’s population saw social media accessed by over half its population. Social Media is a privilege, and it’s important to remember that. When you then start breaking it down into who can access mobile social media, the numbers get even smaller…

We-Are-Social-Global-Digital-Stats-2014-08-500x375

Only 22% of the world’s population are active social media users on mobiles. When we angst about social networks’ quirks, Ts&Cs and latest updates, it’s very much a #FirstWorldProblem.

2. The rise and fall of social networks is fascinating. (Or at least I think so!) Delving into the history of social media reminded me of once innovative sites that had since fallen by the wayside. “Facebook was created in response to the success of Friendster…” – I’m not sure if I know anyone who was on Friendster! This infographic goes a long way to show just how many networks have risen and fallen over the years:

Social_Media_TimelineIf someone knows of a version of this that covers the last four years, that would be amazing! (Source.)

3. The vast array of reasons why people don’t use social media. This actually came out of a discussion at the start of the lecture. The group were diverse in age, background and profession (WTC students study theology part time), so I began by asking the group who used social media – generally and then on a mobile device – to see how they compared to the global stats. There was a surprising number who didn’t use it at all, and they weren’t all from the same demographic. I invited the room to share the reasons why they didn’t use it, or what might influence their use of it, and the results were fascinating.

Obviously, issues of privacy and safety came up, as did trust. A few felt voyeuristic. Some thought that what is posted online is largely irrelevant – why do we need photos of cute cats? One example I particularly liked was a woman who said: “My daughter posted a photo of a cake. What am I meant to say about that??” I replied that I regularly use Twitter to get affirmation for my cooking from my mother! A “that looks lovely darling” goes a long way!

4. Myriad stats and facts!! I love a good factoid – my favourite from prepping this lecture was on trolling. Any idea when the first instance of trolling occurred online? You might be surprised, it appears that trolling is pretty much as old as the first ever bulletin board. In 1978, Chicago scientists created a bulletin board system that became the first online community and with it came the first trolls…

A whole wealth of stats appeared about Instagram, all embodied in a nice infographic:

Instagram infographic(As of March 2014)

One of my favourite discoveries was to do with the Pope’s Twitter account. His most popular tweet last year was “Christ is arisen! Alleluia!” his tweets are, on average, retweeted 6,400 times on his English (the @Pontifex) account. With 4.5 million followers, he’s actually very low in the rankings of most popular Tweeters – he’s not even in the top 100.

***

All this is interesting (well, I think it is), but it’s not that useful in a practical sense. Tonight I’m encouraging people in London Diocese to use social media. For some, it may be a case of persuading them that it has any place in church life – or that the church should be in social media. For others, it might be dispelling some of the fear that the media generates about social networks.

For those who wanted to read what I’ve written before about social media, here’s a run-down:

And, as promised, here’s a list of social media resources that I first put together for the WTC lecture, but I’ve updated a little since. I don’t proclaim myself to be an expert (especially in comparison with many of the names on that list!), but I do have a healthy interest in social media and want to help people use it as effectively as possible.

 

Biscuits of history

As I write, I’m munching on a tasty, oatey, coconutty biscuit. Reminiscent of a HobNob, but with a Pacific flavour, the delicacy in question is the noble Anzac biscuit, and it’s exactly the kind of biscuit one should be eating in late April if one has any kind of interest in (a) the history of WW1; (b) social history and its impact on baking; and (c) the South Pacific. I happen to fall into all three of those categories, so it’s perfection in dunkable form…

anzac_unibicThe Anzac biscuit in commercial form. (Source.)

Tomorrow is Anzac Day and the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the doomed Gallipoli campaign. The two are connected. While we remember the troops lost in war on the anniversary of the armistice, in the Southern Hemisphere, the main focus is April 25th – because it was at Gallipoli that the Anzac (ANZAC = Australia & New Zealand Army Corps) troops made their name.

Having made the unusual discovery that Anzac biscuits were in stock at Sainsbury’s, I got thinking about the legend of the Anzacs and Gallipoli. It threw me back in time, not a century, but a decade (and a bit). This time 11 years ago I was stuffing information about Anzacs and Gallipoli into my poor little brain, ready for a MA exam. [At this point I may need to explain something. Yes, I am currently doing a MA in theology. Yes, 11 years ago I was doing a MA in history. No, I don’t feel that I have too many academic qualifications…]

Specifically, this was a MA in Imperial & Commonwealth History at King’s College London. There aren’t many courses like that in the UK (at the time, there were 3) and I managed to mould my year’s studying generally around two themes: the history of mission in the 19th century and the South Pacific. A taught module on War & Society in 20th Century Australia fitted only into the latter category, but it sounded fun, so I went with it.

Back to the biscuits…

The Anzac biscuit (it is believed) was created as a long-lasting biscuit that could be baked in Australia and NZ and sent to loved ones serving in the Anzacs in WW1. Anzacs were involved both on the Western Front and in the Mediterranean, which brings us back to the Gallipoli anniversary.

The Gallipoli campaign was an unmitigated disaster (not one of Churchill’s finest moments), but it changed the course of history in the homeland of the bulk of the troops, largely thanks to the work of those who first reported the landings on April 25th. British war correspondent, Ellis Ashmead Bartlett wrote about the actions of the Anzacs in glowing terms:

‘The courage displayed by these wounded Australians will never be forgotten…they were happy because they had been tried for the first time and had not been found wanting.’ 

‘Report on the Gallipoli Landing, 8 May 1915’

Perhaps partly because the words had been written by a Brit, and because some positive had been drawn from a failure [the extent of the failure couldn’t be reported at the time] the report went down in history in Australia and with it, the ‘Anzac legend’ was born. It’s one that depicts the Australian man as a united in ‘mateship’ with his comrades; with great courage; strong and fit; humorous; egalitarian and ‘irreverent in the face of authority’. If you’re looking for an Aussie stereotype, you’ve got one right there! [In case you’re wondering about the Kiwis, I think it had a lesser impact upon NZ society, but to be honest, it’s not something I’ve researched! The poster below indicates that it was a feature to some extent.]

The legend affected Australian society for a long time. As I’ve returned to the file containing my MA essays, I’ve remembered a paper I wrote on the impact that the stationing of US troops had on Australian society during WW2. One of the significant effects was on the courtship of women! US solders (over paid, over sexed & over here!) wooed Australian women in a way that the typical Aussie male did not – with flowers, sincerity and romance. The Anzac legend had encouraged Aussie men to look like they were made of stronger stuff, and not the kind of men who bothered with things like flowers! The legend has become more myth and less reality as time has worn on, although you could argue that Alf in Home & Away embodies it. [Is Alf still in Home & Away? I’ve never been a frequent viewer, but he strikes me as that sort of type!] 

The 'Spirit of Anzac' calls youThe Anzac legend came to the fore again as troops were needed for WW2. [Poster, ’The “Spirit of ANZAC” Calls You’, Late 1939 / Early 1940, Wellington, by Whitcombe & Tombs Limited, New Zealand Army Department. Purchased 2007. Te Papa (GH015835)]

Oh, and there was also the small matter of the Australian journalist who set out to bring the real disaster of Gallipoli to society’s attention – one Keith Murdoch. His rise to fame had an impact that is certainly still being felt in global society today, thanks to the work of his son, one Rupert Murdoch…

Obviously, the centenary of this terrible loss of life [read up on Gallipoli, it’s up there with the Somme as a flawed military engagement with little regard for human life] is an occasion for solemnity and retrospection, and for making a renewed commitment to seeking peaceful ways to resolve conflict. However, do also remember the events of a century ago with a mug of tea and a packet of Anzac biscuits, or make your own.

What the world needs is less military action and more baked goods that can teach history!

If you’re interested in knowing more about the Anzacs, there’s (obviously) a wealth of resources to explore. You could go old school and watch the 1981 Gallipoli, featuring Mel Gibson. Or you could try Russell Crowe’s 2015 directorial debut The Water Diviner [disclaimer: this didn’t get a great review from Wittertainment]. Then there’s a different take on the conflict with Australia’s Anzac Girls, which is due to start airing May 1st on More 4.

Ordinary heroes effecting extraordinary change

Climate change is a massive deal. It’s so massive, it’s pretty difficult to know what – if anything – little ol’ me can do about it. I’m not an oil tycoon; I don’t run the government; and I don’t have a time machine to go back and fix some of the terrible environmental decisions humanity has made. I am simply an ordinary person, leading a (fairly) ordinary life.

Thankfully, Tearfund has hit upon a way in which I – and you – can do something that could help to change the situation. Off the back of their latest report entitled The Restorative Economy, they’ve launched a campaign for people to become Ordinary Heroes. I guess it’s basically encouraging us to become slightly less than super heroes, which must mean a slightly more ordinary costume – maybe a pair of M&S knickers over a pair of black leggings, rather a full-on Superhero jumpsuit? [Apologies, that illustration has possibly gone a little too far!!]

The promotional video for Ordinary Heroes. 

The premise is that if we all, as individuals, commit to making lifestyle changes the combined effect will be considerable. Christians have a good track record for this kind of collaborative action, and Biblically, it builds upon the parable of the mustard seed – even from the smallest of seeds can big things grow. Last night, at the launch event for the report and campaign, we were encouraged to wave coloured paper in response to potential commitments we could make, that could begin this momentum:

  • Fly less. Yes, I travel to the US around once a year and my last 2 trips to Belfast have been flights, but I’ve just made a trip to France via Eurostar (and it’s my preferred route there) and I do take the ferry to Ireland when it’s feasible. Texas is a little trickier, sadly…
  • Use a sustainable energy provider. Once I’m in the position to make such decisions, I will do. My current house – given the environmental passion of its owners – definitely already do this.
  • Eat less meat. This is one I’m already committed to. Ethically, I’m well on the side of vegetarians, I just appreciate bacon and a good burger too much to go fully vege, but my cooking at home is almost meat-free out of habit.
  • Spend money/invest wisely. Yep. I’m the child of passionate boycotters, so I’m well versed in this. I’m also thankful to be living down the road from a Co-Op – an excellent source of Fairtrade produce, especially wine! When I have money to invest, I’ll look into this…
  • Buy Fairtrade. See above! But I’d be up for campaigning to see more products go this way.
  • Take political action. Next month, we’ll have a new government. Later this year there’s a UN Climate Change summit. Both are excellent opportunities to raise the issue. Potentially, I’m even up for the mass lobbying of parliament on June 17th.

A climate change campaign may seem like an odd thing for a Christian development organisation to launch. What do they know about the environment? Actually, an awful lot. The thing is, while we might see the odd effect of global warming in the UK, those in the most marginalised areas of international society – who Tearfund work with – experience it at first hand and it’s a massive issue for them. They want to know what organisations like Tearfund are going to do about it.

Several years ago, while working for the Methodist Church, I had the opportunity to meet with Methodist partner churches from all over the world. I vividly remember a representative from the Church of Bangladesh giving a very emotional speech about the impact climate change was having upon his community NOW! [It resulted in me going off on a rant about why on earth our building had a vicious air-con system.] A friend in the South Pacific wrote a book on the theology of the Ocean and the potential impact of rising sea levels upon the Pacific Islands – as someone born on one of those islands, I can’t bear the thought of those communities being lost due to the ignorance and idiocy of industrialised societies.

Matthew Frost

At the launch, Tearfund CEO Matthew Frost spoke of visits around the world where the question of Climate Change had cropped up time and again. He and his Tearfund colleagues had witnessed at first hand the impact these changes had had upon the poorest in society. From villagers in Peru losing water supply owing to disappearing glaciers; to extending deserts in Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, the question is being asked: “What can you do to help us?”

The report is a good read. Theologically grounded, but accessible to all (there’s a shorter summary that does its job well) it makes clear the case for taking action. As Christians, the case is compelling. We were created by God to steward creation and quite frankly, we’ve done a pretty rubbish job of it! I hope we can make a difference, before it becomes too late…

The Restorative Economy(Incidentally, an article about the launch written by me & using the same title as this blogpost will be appearing in the religious press next week. I couldn’t get away with referencing knickers in that piece, so I felt the need to write something else here too!)

 

Septic spanking

It was a happy day, nearly a year ago, when a crew of innuendo loving Brits & Americans discovered that the French acronym for the approval process for septic tanks was SPANC. Pronounced “spank”, obviously. As if a septic tank didn’t already have enough potential for toilet humour…

Chateau Duffy Aug 2014Chateau Duffy at the end of the August 2014 trip.

Last week Chateau Duffy VII took place and the primary aim was to get the approval of “the SPANC man” for the chateau’s septic system. The groundwork for this had been laid – or rather, dug up – by our team’s local member, who lives just a few metres up the road. His wife’s Facebook posts chronicled the digging of a hole of such proportions that seemingly everyone in the region knew about it.

Chateau Duffy April 2015Upon our return in April 2015 (after the advance party had already been at work, plus Will’s efforts). 

“Mike’s hole” (as it inevitably became known, once our long-suffering plumber took up residence at its bottom) was the primary focus of the trip. It couldn’t have been anything but that, given that it basically took up the whole of the site! Most of us were involved in work on/in it at some point – even our smallest team member helped add gravel to it at one point.

Mike & the SPANC man dans le holeOnly in France would a septic tank inspector turn up in a white hoodie.

The hole brought with it many trials and tribulations. It turned out very few of us had any real idea of what a septic tank involved, and that the SPANC man had some very specific ideas about what was needed! Much joy was exhibited on Wednesday afternoon when he made his third visit and finally proclaimed it acceptable.

Mini ForemanA mini foreman onsite.

In the mean time, progress was being made inside. While we were away, Will had slurried the back wall of the barn. In the couple of days the ‘professionals’ had on site prior to the amateurs getting involved, they put in stairs – fancy, Duffy designed stairs no less! As the hole took shape, last summer’s second mezzanine was completed and floored. Those of us in “Team Caz” (we had huddles, a motivational song & an over-developed sense of team pride) took charge of mortaring. Internal walls were topped with cement smoothed level enough for a coffee cup to sit upon (our very specific brief). The local residents had a rude awakening at 9.30am on a holiday as the sound of a cement mixer being towed down a hill disturbed an otherwise peaceful morning!

Lindsay demonstrates the stairsl’escalier!

By the end of the week, we were priming windows (to be installed at a later date) as the hole was filled in and levelled over. It’s almost as if the end of the project is in sight! (Although there’s still a huge amount to be done in the house, and quite a lot more work needed in the barn.) On our day off we explored Lac de Vasiviére – a lake with an island, beaches, art gallery, sculptures and a submarine – continuing the process of discovering places in the region that we can explore once we’re visiting St Denis des Murs for actual holidays, rather than building work. (Apparently, not everyone considers a site of mass genocide an attractive prospect for holiday activities…)

At the lake

Originally, we’d planned to only make one trip to the Chateau this year, but I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to build upon the momentum we’ve gathered this month. Those primed windows are currently laid out in the barn’s loft practically begging to have colour painted upon them. There are doors ready to be primed, painted and installed. There’s a ton of small, comparatively quick jobs in the barn that could be done in the space of a week. So, if you’re interested in joining in the adventure, keep an eye on www.chateauduffy.com

Also, if you want to see some truly beautiful photos from the week, my pal Phil has documented the trip in his rather wonderful photographic style on his blog. I particularly liked this shot of the window painting day:

Liz Reflected What can I say? There’s reflection & a cross! 

Perhaps we won’t return until next Easter, but hopefully, now that the hole’s been filled in and we’ve scattered grass & wild flower seeds across the ground, the inhabitants of St Denis won’t consider the site to be as much of an eyesore as it has been over the last couple of months!

Chateau Duffy end of the tripChateau Duffy, end of trip VII.

A flock of sheep across the capital

My friends and I have gained something of a reputation for a certain activity in recent years. (Actually, I think we have a number of them!) We are known for our passion for hunting inanimate objects…

Back in 2012 it was eggs; in 2013 Gromits; and in 2014 book benches. Elephants, gorillas, buses, Paddingtons and Olympic mascots have also been pursued individually. We take it seriously – dates are planned far in advance; hotels booked at bargain rates; themed goodies baked; and route maps studied carefully. This is not simply a fun day out, it is a mission to be completed!!

Hunting at St Paul's

This year, we’re hunting sheep. Shaun the sheep to be precise. After the success of Gromit in Bristol 2 years ago, 2015 sees a Shaun trail in London over the spring & a summer one in Bristol. Just to show how serious we are, the trail launched on Saturday and we began it on Monday! (More of a happy accident involving Easter holiday dates really.) So if you’re feeling inspired, you’ve got ages to catch them.

Pleasingly, the organisers have appreciated that adults enjoy these hunts just as much as (if not more than) children. Each model of Shaun, designed by a different artist and sponsored by a different company, has a name and theme. These often have a link with its location, and regularly feature some spectacular punning…

Shaun at the Globe? “To sheep, perchance to dream.”
St Paul’s cathedral? “Baa-roque”
Tate Modern? “Br-ewe-nel”
Canary Wharf? “Golden Fleece”

IMG_9203

The latter was a favourite thanks to its shiny ness and potential for reflective photography. Our efforts even prompted its artist to tweet:

(I can’t claim solo credit for this. We all had a go!)

Based on our experiences yesterday and today (and previous escapades), I’d offer the following tips:

  • Plan your route. The map’s available online (you can pick up hard copies too) or there’s an app. We did it over 2 days, but with an earlier start and better weather you could do it in one. Beginning at Paddington, we did the ‘strays’ first, tubing it to Canary Wharf from Edgware Rd then tubing back to London Bridge for the start of trail 4. Trail was done backwards, ending with the first 2 of trail 2. Day 2 began in Covent Garden, included a trek to the far end of St James’ Park for the final lost sheep & ultimately concluding with Shaun number 1 on Carnaby St!
  • Know your limits! Pressing on too long sucks the fun out of it. If you’re local, and/or have children, do the trails over a few days. Trail 4 is long but worth it for the views!
  • Chat to other hunters. You’ll probably see the same people at different locations, so make friends! (I got teased for doing this.) If you’re alone, all the more reason to chat!
  • Snacks are crucial for pepping up flagging hunters. I like themed ones – egg shaped biscuits were a fun treat for egg hunting and a surprise discovery in a pound shop meant that I could repeat the recipe for Shaun. (We also enjoyed Simnel muffins and mini hot cross buns.)
  • Use the toilets whenever there’s a Shaun in a location with free ones.

This is the first trail we’ve ever completed as a group, which is a big bonus for those of us who like to complete things! Bristol’s set to be a 70 Shaun trail, which is rather daunting – but at least we’ve already got our dinner destinations planned!

Shaun HuntingAll 50 London Shauns

Positive Church

One of my ‘extra-curricular’ activities (i.e. non MA work) is being a part of the Transformational Index team. I’ve had a loose association with the TI for a couple of years, as it’s a project that’s emerged from the incubator of Matryoshka Haus (the missional community in which I have many adventures), but it’s only been since last summer that I’ve officially been on the team.

The TI “is a tool that helps organizations to quickly identify their intended social impact and to measure progress in a way which balances a commitment to values with a focus on results.” Coming from a research background, I’ve been interested in it for a while – helping people measure things using methods other than straight stats is a bonus for someone who worked as a qualitative researcher for three years!

TI in action

Last week, we had a team gathering at which each member gave a TED style talk on a subject designated them according to their interests and specialities. I was allocated ‘measuring positive change in UK churches’, which sounds daunting, but actually enabled me to get on one of my high horses…

Using traditional forms of measurement, the church in the UK exists within a negative narrative. The numbers often seem damning:

  • The 2011 census showed a drop from 72% Christian affiliation in 2001, to 59%.
  • Since 1960, Church of England Sunday attendance has dropped from 1.6 million in 1968 to 800,000 in 2013. [Source: 2013 Statistics for Mission, p.6]
  • In 1980, Methodist membership stood at 600,000. In 2013 it was 209,000. [Source: 2014 Statistics for Mission, Methodism in Numbers.]

Within these reports (if reading statistical reports is your thing) are some positives. The Church of England has seen a big increase in worshippers at cathedrals. Mid-week attendance in both denominations has also been on the up. In recent years, the stats process has started including initiatives that fall under the banner of ‘fresh expressions’ (an ecumenical effort to find ‘new’ ways of being church) – many of which have connected with people who wouldn’t otherwise have connected with church.

The problem is that if we ONLY use stats to measure change in the church, the negative narrative is easy to fall into. Simply counting numbers in the pews on Sundays or midweek isn’t going to demonstrate the positive impact that a church might be having upon its local community. Knowing how many have signed up to an Electoral Roll doesn’t give any insight into the spiritual journey individual worshippers may have been on.

If we only use stats showing church attendance or membership, we’re also making an assumption of what ‘success’ looks like. It’s not so very long since the Archbishop of Canterbury got into hot water for stating:
“The reality is that where you have a good vicar, you will find growing churches,”

What does ‘growth’ look like? Is it bums on seats? Hearts changed? Number of interactions with local residents? And what about ‘good’?? When we make measurement simplistic, we’re not really measuring what matters.

Whitby Abbey

If you’re a church-y type, and you care about such questions, I’d like to propose two things:

1. Think about what ‘good’ looks like in your context. What is important? How could you measure that effectively, beyond just the statistical obligations.

2. Step beyond the negative narrative simple statistics (and the world!) might say about the church. Find the qualitative data that speaks against it – the individual stories of change; what your context looks like; and where the positives are.

Those positives aren’t very difficult to find. Another piece of recent extra-curricular work has been some research into fresh expressions of Church in London Diocese. This isn’t the time or place to go into that research (my bit was just the preamble to a much bigger project), but suffice to say that simply gathering a list of such initiatives provided numerous examples of positive change – of churches re-opened after years closed; of innovative ways of connecting with young families; and a high level of creativity and hope.

This might seem like a slightly random blogpost (especially after several weeks absence), but having shared my thoughts on this topic with the TI team, I felt they needed a wider audience. Don’t let negative statistics determine who or what the church is. Get positive!

Uganda, two years on…

This time two years ago, I was sitting in Entebbe airport, killing a lot of hours before a flight home to London. Thanks to Tearfund’s media team, a small group of Christian bloggers had the privilege of spending a week visiting initiatives supported by Tearfund via their Ugandan partner, PAG. Dave Walker, Bex Lewis and I, plus the fabulous Katie Harrison from Tearfund [follow her on Twitter for insights into the world of international development] travelled together, with the aim that the bloggers would tell the stories of their encounters, pretty much in real time. Evenings were spent writing blogposts, editing photos and generally trying to make sense of all we’d experienced.

The team at JinjaOdiira (& Shane), Katie, Dave, Bex & I.

I would have remembered the anniversary without the help of Timehop (memory of an Elephant…), but re-living tweets, blogposts and photos through the canny app has brought back some very specific memories. For example, that final day visiting a village that had participated in the PAG’s PEP initiative, supported by Tearfund, was a fascinating insight into the misunderstandings that can occur with NGO funding. But, while we waited for the misunderstanding to be resolved, we got to play with some very entertaining children…

Baby & bubbles

The tweets and blogposts have reminded me of names I had forgotten. [If you ever go on a trip like this, write down the names of the people you meet and whose stories you hear, don’t let them become another nameless face.] That final day we met John Julius who had successfully funded his children’s higher education with his ground nut crops – two years on I’m wondering whether he ever did find the money to pay his youngest’s final semester’s fees.

John Julius & ground nutsJohn Julius & his ground nut crop.

In the last two years, I have had updates on some of the stories we heard. Just last month, Tearfund shared an update on the story of Lucy, a grandmother caring for her grandchildren. I’m Facebook friends with Odiira, our PAG guide who travelled with us and earlier this year, it turned out she was the guide on another Tearfund visit that a friend of mine was part of. Every so often, I get surprise glimpses of life in Ogongora and other communities around Soroti – like a video in a college seminar last year that may have moved me to tears.

Collecting LunchNursery school children lining up for lunch in Ogongora

It’s a place that feels very far away, on a sunny but chilly Tuesday in London. The red dust (which gets EVERYWHERE – I had to dye a white shirt blue on my return because it just wouldn’t come out),  the dry, relentless heat and the sounds – children laughing; roosters crowing; churches singing – made it like another world.

Communities like those we visited around Soroti are very much in the public eye at the moment. Every episode of Comic Relief does Bake Off features a segment about projects the charity funds in Uganda. When I watch them, I think of the people I met, and the amazing transformations that have taken place. It shows these communities are by no means hopeless.

We live in a world that, despite modern technology, can be very insular and ignorant of all that takes place outside our own neighbourhood, city, or nation. Charities like Tearfund help provide a window on societies beyond our boundaries – that’s why our visit was part of the ‘See for yourself’ campaign. We’re part of a global church, but it’s very easy to forget that Sunday by Sunday, especially if you live in a community that’s not particularly diverse. Get informed and don’t make assumptions about what those elsewhere in the world might need, or how your occasional giving to a good cause should be spent.

Unseen stories

One of the mysteries of ministry is that we often don’t know how the stories we encounter end. The people we pray for at a particular moment of their life, but never see or hear from again; those we are close to for a time, but drift away from; members of churches we were once a part of; people who are only part of our lives for a moment – it’s a perennial feature of life.

21st century life helps with this a little. Facebook keeps me somewhat up to date with a friend made during one of the darkest times of their life, who I met because she asked me to pray for her son after church one Sunday. It lets me know when friends with serious illnesses are doing better or worse. And this week, YouTube has given me an insight into the spiritual life of a member of my former student group. [That is, the student group I used to run – it wasn’t a group of ex students!]

My memory is a little vague, but I’m virtually certain that this student was the first to arrive to the very first student group session I led at St George’s, back in September 2011. He had just started studying at my alma mater, and was keen to tell us that he didn’t consider himself a Christian, but wanted to spend time with Christians to build up his justification for not believing in God. He wasn’t always around, but come his second year, he got involved a bit more and was a key part of the close band of friends that formed amongst the students. In the third year, he came weekly to church and to my house for student gatherings, and got stuck into discussions. I can’t remember quite when it was last year that he turned up on Sunday and announced that he now believed in God (thanks to reading Kant – of all things), but it was a joyful day!

On Sunday, I checked into the Whatsapp conversation that this student group uses to share news/prayer requests and made a discovery. (I had to turn off notifications, as there are only so many multi-people conversations I can allow to make my phone vibrate at all times of day and I already have a very active one for another group of friends! So my discovery was a fortnight old already.) This student had shared their testimony with their church as part of its project to share the stories of members of their congregation. As I watched it (sitting in a busy Starbucks), I was moved to tears.

“They never let me go…” Those were the words that got me. Would others have given up where our church persisted? Those little things we did – listening to him; discussing queries and arguments; and, in my case, ensuring that there was always plenty of garlic bread and dessert on a Tuesday night – kept him searching, until he had his moment of realisation.

I knew that Ollie had become a Christian – I’d been there for that bit. But I hadn’t heard him talk about what had kept him going. It’s a testament to persistence, both on his part and the church’s. All we did was demonstrate love the best ways we knew how.

It struck me that we know very little of the impact our actions can have. A simple act of letting someone be themselves, caring for them and showing them love and hospitality can have a massive impact that we may well never hear about.

This week, I’ve been reminded that it’s ok not to know how the stories end – it’s knowing stories like Ollie’s that demonstrate how important it is to keep doing what we’re doing, what God’s called us to do, and to never let someone go because they haven’t quite ‘got it’ yet.