What was lost this week?

Something more than a measure of Synod was lost this week. In the aftermath of the vote on Tuesday evening not to accept the legislation that would make it possible for women to become Bishops, we also seem to have forgotten how to finish these phrases:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called …

“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as …

“If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of …

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you …

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and …

(Matthew 5:9; Colossians 3:13; 1 Corinthans 6:1; John 13:35
& Matthew 5:23-24 if you do need to look them up)

From what is being reported of church services this morning, there have been a very wider range of reactions to the General Synod vote, but everyone seems to agree that we can’t leave it here.  Synod has spoken, but no-one is happy, the question is whether synod members are willing to return to the table and work out a solution before being asked to vote again.

Right now, today, we have an opportunity to do something remarkable. Instead of defending our corner or justifying our decisions and actions, what if representatives of the different groupings in General Synod decided (or were invited) to meet together and try and agree what to do next.

Instead of trying to win public sympathy for our cause while we let open wounds fester and turn septic, let’s show the world what it means to be the household of God. Let’s do what Christians do: sit down together and study the scriptures with an expectation that God will speak though them; listen to each other’s hurts and frustrations; pray blessing over each other; then share a meal together and say “Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread”.

But what we can’t expect from such a meeting is that anyone will go away with exactly what they want. A common refrain during the Synod debate was that everyone felt they had compromised more than enough already but, as painful as it is, compromise is the only way we can find a consensus. On Tuesday the Church of England was humiliated before the world and we deserved it. Synod was presented with a piece of legislation which very few people were happy with and we cannot allow this to happen again. I pray that we can pass legislation with a 100% majority in each house, but this can only happen if we work out a solution in advance.

So here is my solution. Here are where I see possible compromises, and also why I think these are less serious that they might appear. Apologies for the simplification and grouping of positions, but I wanted to keep this post shorter then my usual efforts.

Legislation.

  • Pass a measure which removes the block on women being ordained as bishops, but rather then completely removing the provisions from the 1993 measure and the accompanying Act of Synod, retain the option for a PCC to request alternative episcopal oversight from a Provincial Episcopal Visitor (PEV, or Flying Bishop) but without the need to pass a resolution preventing women from ministering in churches.
  • As they do at the moment, PEVs would continue to act as suffragan bishops, providing pastoral care and episcopal ministry in churches which request them. They cover a wider area than just one diocese and so there might need to be more than three if more churches opt into this scheme.
  • This also removes the need for an unknown ‘code of conduct’ and removes the ability of an individual bishop to devise a scheme which does not meet the need of those who request it.
  • NOTE: as ever, the devil is in the details, the Act of Synod which provides for the ministry of PEVs is not enshrined in legislation, but carries a similar moral force. Extending the scheme in a way which met the needs of groups #2 and #3 below would be the main sticking point for group #1.

Group #1 Supporters of a Single Clause Measure

  • The compromise for this group is significant. PCCs will effectively be able to reject the ministry and pastoral oversight of a women bishop.
  • But we need to remember that this is the current position and has been for the last 20 years. Diocesan Bishops have not been complaining about feeling like second class bishops just because a PEV operates in their diocese, so women who become diocesan bishops and men who ordain women need not feel that what is being created is a two-tier system within the House of Bishops.

Group #2 Conservative Evangelicals who cannot accept the episcopal oversight of a Women. 

  • The compromise for this group would be in accepting that a woman could be appointed who was legally responsible for them and to whom they would be required to swear canonical obedience.
  • They would also have to give up any idea of ‘co-ordinate jurisdiction’ of a province within a province.
  • But this is not really a theological issue, as we already reason that the oath of canoncial obedience is made to the ‘office of bishop’ rather then the particular incumbent and that it is only ‘in all things lawful and honest’. So we already (sometimes) make that declaration to bishops we don’t agree with.
  • Similarly, we currently invite bishops to come and perform episcopal ministry and we choose which bishop to invite by thinking about the style of service, the pastoral needs of the participants and even which different bishops will insist on wearing. If there is no acceptable diocesan or suffragan bishop in a particular diocese, the PCC can opt to come under the ministry of a PEV.

Group #3 Anglo-Catholics seeking sacramental assurance

  • The compromise for this group is that they lose the rights given in the 1993 measure to prevent the eucharistic ministry of a woman priest in their church. They too have to swear canonical obedience to the diocesan bishop (male or female) and would have to accept ordination to the diaconate from a female bishop or a male bishop who has ordained women.
  • Also lost would be any legitimisation of ‘societies’ or quasi-diocesan structures within the Church of England.
  • Again, the compromise is not as great as it may seem. No incumbent need invite a women to offer any of the sacraments (or to preach) and no parish reps need accept a women as incumbent. With PEVs in place, the issue of sacramental assurance is also clear. Ordinations to the priesthood are usually done in the parish anyway, so a PEV could ensure that the priest was being ordained by a man who had not ordained women and who was not himself ordained or consecrated by a women.

So will you join me in inviting the people who spearhead your campaign to start talking to each other? If there was an easy solution then we wouldn’t be in this mess now, and what I’ve said above might be totally unworkable, but I don’t see anything else on the table.

So this is my open letter or my own petition to synod members, to the Archbishop Designate, to WATCH, Reform, GRAS, Forward in Faith, Anglican Mainstream and everyone else. If you like what I’ve said, then please give me a retweet or comment.

If you don’t then come up with something better, but please, please be a peacemaker, for they will be called Children of God.

Is Synod Broken?

It’s very hard to find a silver lining to the cloud created by this week’s General Synod vote not to pass the measure making it possible for women to become Bishops in the Church of England. If there was an upside, though, it would be the sudden resurgence of interest in the synodical governance of the Church of England and the legal framework which underpin it. Synod has done in one day what the education officers of the Ecclesiastical Law Society have been trying to do for years: get people excited about Canon Law.

Over the past week there have been many different voices clamouring to explain how just 6 people could swing this vote so dramatically. There have been calls for reform (small ‘R’) calls for disestablishment, some fairly scary calls for laity (non-clergy) to butt out of decision making altogether and also some potted historical analysis to try and explain why the General Synod is follows the same debating ethos as the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ on the other side of the Abbey Precinct.

There are three questions which need to be asked in the light of some of these comments. My answers come from my study of representation and governance in the Church of England, so hopefully they are more than just personal opinion. But then, as all good students of Canon Law know, interpretation of English law is very much to do with opinion, so feel free to weigh in.

#1 What are General Synod Members there to do?

Before I began my formal theological training, I worked for a while in the Student Union at a university. My job was to prepare students to represent their peers and to be involved with the governance and academic improvement of the university. So when students sat on disciplinary panels they were there to look at the evidence and decide for themselves, and when they came to quality assurance meetings they were there to offer a student perspective on the teaching and learning in their department. Most of the time they were there to think for themselves.

But once a year we prepared delegates to attend the Nation Union of Students’ annual conference. These students were different because they were not only elected, they were also given a mandate and the wider student body indicted how they should vote. As such, it was usually possible to predict quite accurately what the outcome of a proposal would be, even before there had been a vote.

Now, the important thing to realise about General Synod members is that they are representatives, not delegates. Members are elected from and by their peers and entrusted with making a decision on our behalf. They are not sent with a mandate, they are elected to think for themselves.

As such, a representative is there to listen to as much information as they can and to make an informed decision about how they will vote. When they came to vote on Tuesday evening, General Synod members had seen the responses from the parishes, deanery and diocesan synods, they had read the documents and responses produced by the different interest groups, they had read the letters to The Times and The Independent and noted the numbers (and genders) of signatories, they had done their own reading and reflection, and then they had listened to over 100 speeches over the course of the debate. Then they were asked to have a few moments silent reflection before pressing one of the three buttons on their electronic keypad.

It is absolutely no surprise how many of the members voted. Before they had even been elected they had laid their cards on the table and so it was possible to have a fairly good estimate about the general shape of the vote. But synod is not partisan in the same way Parliament is, and there is no mechanism for compelling members to vote with their ‘party’, to vote with the majority and especially not to vote to appease the secular media or even government.

And so there were members who went into the chamber undecided and formed their opinion by listening carefully over the course of the day. Some were looking to be persuaded one way or another, some just wanted to hear how the different opinions stood at the end of the debate.

There is no question that the rank-and-file of the Church of England (myself include) wanted a measure to be passed which allowed for Women to be consecrated as bishops. Those floating voters in the Synod’s House of Laity, however, felt that it was more important not to exclude those who could not accept this, rather then to push ahead regardless. That was the conclusion they came to after hearing all those speeches and their decision was informed and deeply considered. Those in the public gallery might have felt that provision was adequate but having heard the debate, more than a third of the House of Laity did not.

Having understood what the members of General Synod are there to do, we then need to ask the question about whether the members themselves really are trustworthy to make decisions of this magnitude on our behalf.

#2 Is the House of Laity Representative?

The criticism which has been repeated online and in print is that the method of election of General Synod members either ‘favours larger churches’ and that it ‘allows it to be captured by special interest groups’.

The first thing to say is that these two criticism are antithesis to each other. EITHER the membership can be dominated by the majority OR it is open to abuse by minority groups. It cannot be the case that a majority can be called a special interest group.

But let’s look at those two statements one at a time. Is there any truth in them, and are there better ways to choose representatives from those who are most invested in the Church of England, its members?

For those who’ve missed the multitude of dummies-guides-to-synod over the past few days, most of members of the House of Laity of the General Synod are elected by the membership of al the Deanery Synods in their diocese. Anyone who is on the electoral roll of a Church of England church can stand as a candidate for the Laity of General Synod, but it is a subset of this total ‘membership’ who will decide who is sent to represent the diocese. There are a few unelected (ex-officio) positions, but these are a tiny minority of the total number of lay reps.

This is in contrast to the House of Clergy, where all the clergy licensed to a particular diocese can vote for their General Synod representatives.

Each Deanery synod will have members from every church in the local area (the deanery) and so every parish in the Church of England will have at least one person who votes for lay General Synod reps, and this person will be elected by the church members who attend the annual church meeting. The number of reps elected depends on the size of the electoral roll (which is usually bigger, but proportional to, the regular attendance at that church). But does this favour larger churches? Well, it’s the diocesan synod that determines the number of Deanery Synod reps from each parish and, if anything, the smaller churches send a larger number of reps per person of the roll.

If a church has under 26 names on the electoral roll, it can only send one rep to Deanery Synod so, in theory, a church with 26 members could send two reps, although in practice the cut-off is more like 40. Much larger churches on the other hand, usually find themselves allowed six or seven reps from a membership of several hundred. This means small churches can have a ratio of Deanery reps to members of 1:20, while in a large church it could be as low as 1:100.

Add to this the fact that there are many more small churches than big ones, it does seem that the criticism that larger churches are overrepresented simply does not hold water.

There have been some calls to reform this house, or at least reform the way it is elected. These do seem to misunderstand the way representation in the CofE works. As I hope I’ve demonstrated above, any sort of proportional representation would only seek to increase the influence of the larger churches. Also, it is almost impossible to determine a genuine ‘membership’ of any given church. The two instruments which come into play in the selection of Deanery Synod representatives are the Electoral Roll and the Annual Meeting. If you are on one and come to the other, you have a say.  Moving the other way would also be counter productive. Having some sort of ‘electoral college’ (maybe the members of diocesan synod) further removed the process of election from those people who the lay members of General Synod are there to represent. As it stands, the electorate of General Synod lay reps is directly representative of every church in the country, and there is no other body than Deanery Synods of which that is true. 

So what about the claim that General Synod is open to ‘capture’ by minority interest groups? As with all elections were candidates are not personally known to the electorate, voters are choosing based on the information they have. Name, manifesto, history, churchmanship, gender, views on women bishops; most of this will be used by voters as they select their candidates, but it seems that the most important criteria is record of service.

In representative organisations it is common for voters to choose to stick with the status-quo, so in practice a diocese will often have the same set of General Synod reps until one moves away or decides not to stand for reelection. This means that the members are usually stable and informed about debates but, more than that, they are also known to the electorate. So it is quite hard for a new candidate to be elected, especially if they are trying to unseat an existing rep. And trying to co-ordinate Deanery Synods across a whole diocese to elect a particular rep (as one of the current online petitions is trying to do) is difficult, if not impossible.

Like all committees, the reason why minority candidates can wield influence is not a problem with the structure, but because of apathy among candidates and voters alike. With a few notable exceptions, Deanery Synods are not the most exciting place to spend and evening, and so members do tend to be there by default rather than because of an active choice. Because of the time commitment, General Synod elections are also not that hotly contested, so often the limited choice of candidates confirm the view that voters don’t really need to be that informed as they cast their vote.

I am extremely fearful of the damage of a politicised single-issue General Synod could have on the governance of the church, but the effect at deanery level could be quite exciting. Having a local meeting of Anglican Christians who are engaged with the process, involved in local mission and there by active choice could transform Deanery Synods into really effect forums for collaboration in mission. So my plea to those who want to hijack the process is this: if you stand for Deanery Synod, please don’t see your role as just to number the right boxes in a few years’ time, instead sign up with a willingness to be a part of the Church’s mission in your local area. 

#3 Does Tuesday’s vote show that the system of synodical government has failed?

Over the past week the prevailing narrative seems to have been “Synod has failed”. There have also been petitions, calls in Westminster and cynical cartoons calling for synod members to go back in the chamber and ‘come out with the right result’. One or two people have helpfully pointed out though, that having agreed the rules of debate, we cannot say that democracy has failed, just because the system did not deliver the result we wanted.

Did the House of Laity fail the church last Tuesday? No, I think it showed us that synod is still working. General Synod members are still prepared to vote against massive pressure from other members, from the clergy, from the bishops, from the internet and from the government if they feel that what is being proposed is not right for their church. For that I applaud them. Those who only last week were saying, ‘trust in the process’ now need to examine themselves to see if the abuse they have directed towards ‘no’ voters is anything more than sheer bullying.

But what about the overall majority who wanted to pass this measure? Would reform of the voting within synod be an option?  The phrase that is commonly used of governance in the Church of England is that we are ‘Synodically Governed and Episcopally Led”. In practice, this means that it is difficult, if not impossible, for significant developments unless they are supported by both synod and the Bishops. The reason why the ability to vote by houses is unlikely to be removed is that it gives power to the House of Bishops as they can to veto legislation and other developments of importance. The Bishops also have the power to modify legislation before a vote (as they did earlier this year), but this isn’t a right that is shared by the other two houses. And this cuts both ways, because by the same token the House of Laity can also exercise the same right of veto, which they did in Tuesday’s vote.

One person who brought huge clarity to Tuesday’s debate was Elaine Storkey. I remember clearly a story which she told about the vote 20 years ago to ordain women as priests. Following the vote she met a senior churchman in tears outside the chamber who held her hands and said “I don’t agree with this, but the church has spoken”.

The synod has spoken, and it has said that we cannot have Women Bishops at any price. Now the challenge is to work out a solution, which allows women to become bishops without tearing the church apart. What I can’t see any point in doing is bringing this back to another vote on this same measure with this same synod before there is some sort of consensus among members about a way forward that is acceptable to all.

UPDATE: If you thought this was long, my college essay on Synodical Government is even longer, you can download it from this page.

Not for this reason, not in this way.

This week was always going to be a difficult one for the Church of England and I, for one, can’t see myself celebrating either of the possible outcomes from tomorrow’s debate and vote on the Women bishops legislation. I’ve felt for some time that I don’t really feel comfortable in either ‘camp’, but this morning’s open letter published in the Independent has confirmed my view that I am in a real minority.

So let me start by saying something that I hope won’t be a surprise, but which I haven’t made public: I’m theologically in favour of Women’s ordination and so I don’t see any barrier to women being consecrated as Bishops. In theory, I’d be voting in favour of a motion to allow women to become Bishops and thinking it was not before time. Although I don’t like the label, I guess this makes me an egalitarian. Now I realise that according to some of my conservative evangelical colleagues I ought to drop the ‘conservative’ label, but I still feel that this best describes the approach to serious engagement with the whole Bible and the conviction that I should obey what it teaches.

But as the debate currently stands, I can’t find myself supporting the motion that is before General Synod this week, and were I asked to, I couldn’t sign a letter which uses the arguments printed in today’s Independent. Although in agreement with the principle, I can’t say that the “end justifies the means” – I don’t want it for this reason, and I don’t want it in this way.

Not for this reason.

Much of the ‘yes’ debate can be reduced to the single point made in today’s letter:

First, because the Bible teaches that “in Christ there is no male or female”, but all people are equal before God. Just as the churches have repented of our historic antisemitism and endorsement of slavery, so we believe that we must now show clearly that we no longer believe women to be inferior to men.

This is the trump card which is used to defeat all other arguments. ‘God thinks we are equal, so the church needs to come in line with the will of God, and repent of not doing so sooner’.

But to take a single phrase out of context and to elevate it above the rest of the Bible’s teaching is a sloppy way to make a point, and the danger of using proof-texts in this way is that by trading verses in this way we can generate a lot of heat, by no real light.

Over 1000 Bible teachers signed the letter in the Independent, but the challenge to Anglican Bible teachers as we engage with this issue is to heed the warning of the 39 articles, which prohibit the church and it’s clergy from “so expound[ing] one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another”. If we favour one text at the expense of another then we are not allowing ourselves to be led by scripture, we are sitting in judgement upon it as we say the bits we like are more valid than the bits we don’t. We need to look at more than one verse as we come to this debate.

So what does that passage in Galatians say, and what does it mean? And as we do so, let’s remember that this verse is written by the man who is often wrongly portrayed of as the arch-misogynist of the New Testament, the Apostle Paul.

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God  through faith,  for all of you who were baptized into Christ  have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,  nor is there male and female,  for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ,  then you are Abraham’s seed,  and heirs  according to the promise.” Galatians 3:26-29

The big debate in the letter to the Galatians is whether Jew and Gentile are going to be included and united together in on church. In this context, this verse is not about the abolition of all differences, but it is about the unity of all believers in Christ. The Galatian believers were in danger of going back to an Old Testament legalism, which does talk about differences between the way men and women are included in God’s people. Paul wants to refute that as strongly as he can and we writes “You foolish  Galatians!  Who has bewitched you? … Did you receive the Spirit  by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?”

So we cannot use this phrase as a proof-text to justify the rejection of all gender distinctions, or any other distinctions for that matter. It is not the trump card that destroys all other arguments or silences all other voices. We need to engage with the whole council of scripture.

As I said earlier, I want to take scripture seriously and I do come to conclusion that gender distinctions should not prevent women from playing a full part in the life and leadership of the church. I come to that conclusion from looking at the accounts of the creation of men and women in Genesis, from looking at Jesus inclusion and treatment of women (as mentioned as the second point in today’s indy letter), looking at Paul’s practice in appointing, training and deploying female leaders and from seeing the way household codes empowered women in the home and in society, in stark contrast to pagan instructions from the same period.

But in this backdrop Paul sees fit to limit the ministry of women in Ephesus and also, to  degree, in Corinth. There can be no question that Paul really does write “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;  she must be quiet” (1 Timothy 2:12). This is not a man who thinks that all gender distinctions have been completely abolished.

I’ve taught elsewhere about how I this passage can be understood as the exception to the rule of equality, rather than the general principle which is excepted by Paul’s choice of women as leaders and teachers. But the point is that I come to an egalitarian viewpoint because I believe scripture consistently allows us to do so, rather than because one verse allows us to disregard all others.

Not in this way.

The other reason why I can’t support the measure as it stands and couldn’t have signed today’s letter is that it does not involve the “enormous compromise” which is claimed by the ‘yes’ lobby.

The church of England is governed by an incredibly complicated web of legislation, hierarchy and representative bodies, which allow for a wide diversity of theological opinion and practice. So it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that such a complicated institution could produce legislation which safeguards the integrity of all its members.

I recently read an e-mail from one of the General Synod members from my own diocese saying that we needed to trust the house of bishops to come up with a non-statutory code of practice to safeguard those who hold a complementarian position. The irony is that just a few months ago, the same people who are urging us to ‘trust the House of Bishops’ were up in arms that the Bishops had attempted to introduce a fairly minor change to the legislation which is before General Synod tomorrow.

My fear is that if (and when) this measure is passed, over time the provision for those who cannot accept it will be weakened and then removed altogether. It isn’t that I don’t trust our leaders, but as I look around the Anglican Communion, and especially in the direction of the Episcopal Church in America, what I see is the dilution of protections to the point where congregations are forced to leave their buildings and dioceses find themselves in conflict with their national church.

So I can’t see myself celebrating either outcome from tomorrow’s vote. Unless that vote is to introduce genuine compromise, which allows for women bishops, while protecting the integrity of all those who want to remain under the authority of scripture.

 

 

Should I be on Twitter?

This week I was away on a conference with my fellow clergy from the Diocese of Exeter. From the start of the conference we were given permission to sit engrossed in our laptops, tablets and smartphones as this was to be the first Devon clergy conference with a “social media element”.

As I quickly pointed out using the #DevonClergy hashtag, this wasn’t really anything new, we used to call it passing notes, and it used to be frowned upon if you did it too obviously.

Now it turns out that there are a lot of Vicars in Devon who have Twitter accounts, but many of them have a tweet count in double figures, rather than the thousands which it is possible to rack up if you post on a more regular basis. They had signed up, but not really found a use for Twitter.

New to Twitter Login Screen

As Erasmus commented “In the country of the blind, the one eyed man is king” so even with my fairly modest 1,234 tweets I found myself in the rare position of being an early-adopter. I also found myself being repeatedly asked the question by colleagues “Should I be on Twitter?”

 

 

 

So here is an answer to the question – which doesn’t make recommendations, but does give an insight into how I see my own Twitter use, and how I want to develop it from here.

I my personal Twitter account in three main ways:

First, as a way of connecting with local people, businesses and organisations. I’ll typically do this by mentioning places I’ve gone, things I’ve been impressed by, and sometimes things I’ve been disappointed with. Most businesses, charities and venues have a Twitter account these days, so if you mention them by their account name you should expect some sort of response. Recommendations on social media are generally thought to be a good thing, and I’ve found that retailers get to know you as a customer if you interact with them online. I’ll often share photos here too, especially if something special is going on and I want to help publicise it. Here’s a couple of recent examples, both positive and negative:

Having a great ?#TouristWednesday? in the sunshine. With ?@Marttheart?, ?@NMAPlymouth?, ?@RoyalWilliamYd? & ?@NationalTrust? Shamrock.

Well done Boots Opticians. Just posted my new contact lenses to an address I left 12 years ago!

(I wasn’t being kind by leaving the Twitter username off this Boots tweet, I couldn’t find a relevant account to aim it at.)

Second, as a way of announcing news, notices and insights related to ministry or my blog. These are typically announcements rather than invitations to dialogue, but I occasionally retweet comments I agree with or pass on links to articles and blog posts, as in the example below. As a rule I tend not to retweet things I don’t agree with ‘as discussion starters’. Under this section I’ll also engage on a fairly superficial level with discussions or disagreements, but try to avoid protracted or heated exchanges in this public sphere. I’m also not a big fan of retweeting aphorisms from well know Christian speakers.

Catch up and share Stephen Ellard's great sermon 'Peace under God's rule' from ?#spancras? this morning. ?http://bit.ly/OtQnBr ?

Finally, I use Twitter as a way of sharing personal thoughts, anecdotes and photos with friends. Unlike Facebook, Twitter is a public forum, so I have quite strict rules about what I do and don’t share. I try not to give away any personal information that might help identity fraudsters; I never use my son’s name or put any identifiable photos of him on Twitter or my blog; I don’t advertise if the house is going to be empty, and I’m careful what I write about alcohol, eating out or spending money. I always need to think ‘would I be happy for my congregation, neighbours, parents (or Bishop) to read this?’

This does keep the sharing to a fairly superficial level, but I’ve found that it is possible to be truthful and humorous in a way that does help people to build up a picture of you are a person. Like a true Brit, my best humour is self-deprecating, and this seems to work well on Twitter too.

Just accused my mum of stealing aprons from my kitchen. She pointed me towards a draw containing nothing but clear, ironed aprons. #contrite
Fortunately I looked up from my iPhone when I heard the words "Tom Daley diving" from the bath tub.

Now the thing to keep in your mind as you tweet, is that if you are interesting and courteous (follow others and mention them) you will gradually build up a list of followers who fall into one of these three categories. As such, you want to keep them all interested, and not flood their timeline with stuff that isn’t relevant to them.

It’s a temptation to set up several accounts for different audiences, but as Christian leaders we ought to be able to integrate our life and ministry in such a way that we are presenting the whole person to those who are looking on.

Having said that, there is one additional category which I’m just starting to explore, which is using my presentation software to automatically tweet from lectures and sermons. Because the volume of information is likely to exceed the spam-tolerance on those who are not in the lecture, I’ve set up a separate profile to handle this information. (@JonMSpeaker) If I want to interact with my own lecture material, I will then do so by retweeting or replying from my personal account.

As I reflect on these three ways I use Twitter, it seems that there is one thing that they have in common, which is that Twitter is a great way of making friends. Twitter allows you to interact with people you don’t know or you hope to get to know and breaks the ice quickly. In a conference setting, it’s difficult not to speak to someone you’ve been interacting with online just a few moments ago, but for many, Twitter is now the starting point.

So yes, you probably should be on Twitter, but you also need to know when to put it down and have a real conversation.   

If you don’t already follow me, the you can find me on Twitter using the name @jjmarlow. Now you know what to expect. 

People are Rude

How do you deal with discouragement?

This week I was chatting to an artist friend who told me that, over the bank holiday weekend, he had hidden the gallery visitors’ book because people had been leaving disparaging comments about his work.

Now if you are an artist, one way to deal with negative comments is to tell yourself that people are rude philistines and that you are misunderstood. Another way is to do what the rest of us do and mentally balance the good stuff with the bad stuff and hope that the scales tip in favour of encouraging ourselves.

So for Martin, the artist in question, he could recall that someone recently compared some of his work to Tracey Emin. He could eavesdrop on a conversation I had where another friend made the link to Matisse. He could re-read my own recent blog post where I wax lyrical about one of his more evocative paintings. Or he could get out the sales ledger and remind himself that people actually do pay for his work, so he must be doing something right.

Incidentally, you might want to compare the three artists mentioned above for yourself. All three have produces series of blue nudes, some of which I’ve linked here. You might not be able to afford an Emin or a Matisse, but you could probably stretch to owning one an original Bush. (but be quick, you never know when fame might strike).

There are times when I get discouraged with my work, and I guess I’m not alone among my fellow church ministers in this respect. The temptation for us is to conduct a similar mental exercise to try and balance the good to outweigh the bad.

The trouble with doing this is that Jesus promises that there will always be something discouraging lurking around the corner. He reminds Christians that people will treat them the same way they treated him, and we shouldn’t expect exemption from the rule because “no servant is greater than his master”. So when we see how powerfully the Holy Spirit has worked through a sermon we preached on Sunday, there will often be an e-mail waiting on Monday morning questioning the theology of what we’ve said. When we see people coming to a living faith in Jesus, there will often be people drifting away from church. High-functioning leadership teams often seem to have people who find it easier to criticise than encourage. Even in our own lives, when we find ourselves feeling victorious about a personal victory, the old sins are still lurking at the door to trip us up.

To use a silly example of trying to balance encouragement and discouragement: last night we had a great prayer meeting asking for the Holy Spirit’s power to keep working to transform those who are being baptised and confirmed over the next few weeks, but I knew that afterwards I was going to have to empty the church recycling dustbin as local dog walkers have been using it as a in for their dog’s poo. The trouble with balancing the good with the bad, is that there is no guarantee we will come out encouraged. 

So is there another option? For the Christian there is, and in the passage I’m preaching this Sunday morning, the Apostle Paul spells out a more secure foundation for dealing with discouragement. He writes:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion…”

Philippians 2:1

This is powerful stuff! Suddenly we see that our mood or our measure of success is not dependent on how well our ministry is going, how our congregation is growing, how our budget is balancing or what local people think about us – it is about being united with Jesus Christ.

And unlike growth, reception and people’s good opinion, being united with Jesus Christ is a permanent state, as is his love and his gift of the Holy Spirit.

I was reminded this week (by Twitter, no less) of a quote from Martin Luther:

“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”

So although people are rude, and we are not as good as we like others to think we are, Jesus is constant and we are loved.

Getting to Know You – Part II: When your thoughts are not your own.

Facebook Login ScreenOscar Wilde’s character Lord Darlington is probably best known for his confession: “I can resist everything but temptation”. So how would he have fared if he were faced with that most modern of temptations, a logged-in Facebook page? I must admit that from time to time I’ve experience the excitement of leaving a reminder to log out or a message saying how much they admire @jjmarlow, but is there a more serious side to the latest iteration of the prank call?

Writing you’re a message in someone else’s Facebook status or Twitter feed is known as ‘Fraping’, a contraction of ‘Facebook-Rape’. The term is obscene in the way it trivializes rape, but the comparison reveals the perceived seriousness of the offence – it violates our autonomy at the heart of our identity.

Now Debretts are yet to publish a guide to the etiquette of frape, but most polite people seem to work on the principle that it’s acceptable to leave your mark, but not to write anything which would cause an employer or grandparent to raise an eyelid. But what happens when your login, laptop or smartphone falls (or is placed) into the wrong hands?

I wrote last week about the way we examine social media to build up a profile of people we haven’t met and those we want to check out. In many ways Facebook is replacing traditional references. Its strength is that often the writer (you) are not holding back for fear of being sued for writing a bad reference.

So what does your future employer think when what’s in your status wasn’t written by you? DO I think ‘poor them, its terrible to be the victim of identity fraud’? OR, do I think ‘are they going to be as careless with my personal information as they are with their own?’. ‘Are they going to give other people access to our computer systems, our office, our client mailings, our corporate Twitter feed?’ ‘What if these others say to our clients the same sort of things which they write here?’

I guess that the moral of the story is to be as careful with access to your social media networks as you would with your living room or your bank account. And keep an eye on what’s there on your timeline. If you didn’t write it, for the time being there’s always ‘delete’.

Getting to Know You – Part I: The Real You?

In the small province of the blogosphere which I inhabit, there’s been quite a lot of chat recently about how Christians use social media to interact with one another and with the wider world. A lot of this focuses on the interactions we can have in 140 characters or longer, and on the dangers of creating an online persona which doesn’t match our meatspace reality (see Tim Chester, Cat Caird, Bryony Young and others).

What I find even more fascinating, however, is the image we unintentionally allow all this public soul-searching, liking and linking to convey about ourselves. I want to suggest that, put together, this information is more likely to tell us the truth about ourselves than to mislead people that we are more exciting than we really are.

I was talking to a friend recently who made the observation that their ‘year in status’ word-cloud talked more about alcohol than about Jesus. This illustrates the point that however we try and present ourselves, the truth is hard to hide when so much is public.

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about this in the context of my new role in the Church of England, which is as a part of the team in the Exeter Diocese who help people through the process of selection to ordained ministry. I’m also currently in the process of appointing new staff at church, which is a shorter process, but with the same aim of finding out if a candidate is a good fit for the role.

Now I’m not alone in this, but you need to know that whenever you contact me about selection, or about a job, the first thing I’ll do is type your name or e-mail address into Google, Facebook and Twitter to see what you look like and what you’re prepared to tell the world about yourself. If you’re a friend of a friend (as more and more people are) then it’s likely that I’ll be able to see your children, your holiday photos and stag night pictures as well, which might not always be the image you want me to have during an interview.

But the flip-side is true as well. What if I can’t dig up anything on you? Is that better or worse?

Well, If these three searches don’t throw anything up then I’ll assume one of three things:

  1. You’re really paranoid about internet security;
  2. You’re not really cut out for communicating in the modern world; or
  3. You have a secret online life under another alias or username.

Needless to say, two out of these three reasons are not going to help you as you go forward for selection to a public teaching ministry or church job.

But enough about my snooping (I’m just giving your fair warning that when I ask you questions I might already know the answers) how can you put this confession to good use?

I want to suggest that as well as being a goldmine to an employer or selector, social media is a great tool for auditing your own life.

Here are some initial questions you could ask yourself:

  • What are the most important things in my life? (what/who do I photograph, tag, name-check, stalk?)
  • Do people think they are better friends with me than they are?
  • Am I using social networks when I should be asleep, listening, in church, etc?
  • If you are a follower of Jesus, would anyone know from your Facebook profile or twitter feed?
  • Do you have an outlet for negative emotions that isn’t quite so public?
  • Am I a leader or a follower? (do you retweet/share/like more than you create new content?)
  • Do my posts or status updates show ‘quality of mind’? (This one particularly relevant to those seeking to meet ordination selection criteria.)

I could go on, but I’ll get a better list if others wade in, what questions would you add to the list of self-assessment questions for users of social media?

P.S. I know there are other networks out there, but I’m a late adopter, so I’m pretending they don’t exist until I really can’t avoid them. (That’s why I’ve ignored your Linkedin Request – sorry.)

Is it OK to disagree with the Artist?

Looking out of the window at the chilly rain this Monday morning, the weekend’s sunshine seems to belong to another season rather than being just a day ago. On those days when the sun does shine, I’m increasingly spending time down at Plymouth’s Royal William Yard enjoying the coffee, freshly made pastries, local cheeses from the deli, the passage to the beach and the art.

On most of our visits we pop in to see what’s new in the gallery of local abstract artist Martin Bush. That might be because my son insists on going in and peeking tentatively around the labyrinth of paintings until he finds an impressive three metre high sculpture of the minataur. But on the wall facing the minataur is what I’m going in to see, a 1.5 metre wide abstract painting called “In the Element”.

In the Element - Martin Bush 2011

In the Element – Martin Bush 2011

This picture is part of a series of works inspired by the America’s Cup sailing competition, which came to Plymouth last summer. Almost effortlessly, Martin manages to capture the movement and the energy of that competition, the constant action and attention needed to harness the elements and keep ahead of the competition. Discussing the picture, Martin wants the viewer to imagine themselves looking back from the bow of a racing yacht, the folds of the sails forming an expectant concertina of canvas on the deck as they are hauled down out of the wind.

When I first saw this picture, there was something disturbing about it, which didn’t sit easily with the adrenaline rush of having the sun on your back, the wind in your hair (and sails) and the spray of salt water in your face. For me the picture seemed more foreboding, and the title conveyed a sense of menace. For me this was not a picture of elements being harnessed for sport, but a darker vision of elements being fought back as they threaten to engulf the onlooker and dislodge them from their precarious perch above the waves.

Eventually I realised why I saw such a hostile scene. It was because there was another image lurking in the back of my mind, which Martin’s work evokes in its composition and in the positioning of the flashes and swirls. The scene which I now see when I look at “In the Element” is this one, Théodore Géricault’s 1819 paining of the Raft of the Medusa.

The Raft of the Medusa - Théodore Géricault (1791–1824)

The Raft of the Medusa – Théodore Géricault (1791–1824)

At over seven metres wide, the Raft of the Medusa towers over the viewer from its permanent home on the walls of the Louvre. In contrast to the Mona Lisa, which always appears smaller than expected, this massive work of art overpowers rather than charms those who stand before it. It tells the horrific story of the survivors of the Shipwreck of the Medusa, who clung to this hastily constructed vessel as they awaited rescue. A rescue which eventually came to just fifteen of the 147 passengers in the form of the French ship the Argus. This ship can just be seen as a hopeful speck on the horizon in the top right of the picture.

Once you’ve seen the similarity, the composition of “In the Element” makes it impossible to disassociate it (for me at least) from the Raft of the Medusa. In the top left corner the dark patch of the towering waves and the brooding clouds sit beside the flash of light of a hopeful dawn. The only bright colour in Géricault’s vision are the red flashes of garments, one of which is being waved in hope of being sighted. These are mirrored by the bursts of red in the abstract work which infuse the canvas with hope. The diagonal ropes holding the mast are evident in both works and, most powerfully, where the Argus sits on the horizon as a beacon of hope to the stricken souls on the raft, in the corresponding spot there is a blue cross – a symbol of salvation above the tumultuous waves.

In my dark vision of In the Element, instead of folds of canvas, lifeless as they wait to be hoisted into the wind, the swirls become the wasted and inert forms of those for whom the deliverance of the Argus would not come in time.

But which of us is right?

As I look at In the Element, I can see both the sporting scene Martin describes, and also the despair and hope of the dying passengers of the Medusa. But should it be possible to see both? Should the artist be able to dictate what we see, or is it OK to disagree with the artist?

As I reflect on this question, it seems that the answer to this question is bound up with the level of abstraction in the work itself. If this was a photo-realistic image of the bow of a modern racing yacht then we wouldn’t be discussing the similarities with the two hundred year old representation of a maritime tragedy. But because the work is abstract, because it leaves room for interpretation by the viewer, we are free to see more in here than what the artist intended. And once we’ve seen a bigger picture, the abstract often becomes clearer.

Now I’m no expert when it comes to art, so let’s move this discussion into a field with which I’m more familiar – making sense of the Bible.

I often hear people accuse the Bible of being incomprehensible and unconnected, but the Bible too has different levels of abstraction. Some parts of the Bible are meant to be photo-realistic: Histories, Letters, Gospels and all those parts which have the voice of a narrator showing us clearly what God wants us to think. We can’t read these bits and argue with the author about what they meant.  But there are some parts of the Bible which are more abstracted: Poems, dialogues, visions and proverbs all leave room for us to see layers of meaning, and are often the bits that leave us confused. But there is a bigger picture, an overarching story which once we’ve seen it will shape our understanding of even the most abstract sections.

Like the Raft of the Medusa, the big picture of the Bible has at its centre a scene of despair and hope where at first glance we cannot see whether the darkness of the clouds or the light of the dawn will triumph.  But like the Argus, like the cross on the horizon, the Cross of Jesus is the beacon of hope which makes sense of the whole picture. And once we’ve seen that the Bible is about one man, we can’t help but see Him across the whole canvas of scripture.

So what do you see?

If you want to make up your own mind about In the Element, then its on show at Martin’s Gallery in the Brewhouse in Plymouth’s Royal William Yard. Martin’s current show includes his current projects and older works. You can also book the gallery for private events and functions.  

VIsit Martin Bush's Website

Chill Out, It’s just Porn

There is one youth group teaching session that no-one wants to be at. Neither the leaders nor the young people want to be talking about pornography, but that isn’t because it’s not relevant.

As part of a recent series looking at relationships with our 14-18s group at church, we spent an evening exposing some of the lies which pornography tells us. At the start of the session I conducted a little bit of casual research as asked why sort of things they were being taught at school about pornography. Initially, the answer took me by surprise: “Nothing”. Those at the top end of the group had sat through nearly a decade of biology, PSHE, citizenship and religious studies lessons teaching them about sex, but no-one had every had the courage to talk about pornography, even though this is probably the area of sexual behaviour which effects a larger number of teenagers than any other.

Maybe it has taken a while for curriculums to catch up with technology, or maybe teachers underestimate the scale of the issue. As one youth leader once explained it: “When I was a teenager, the only way I could get hold of pornography was to go to our village newsagent and ask buy magazines from someone who not only knew my mum, but was also my Sunday School teacher. Now teenagers don’t even have to search for porn, every other e-mail in their inbox and every nearly every pop-up advert is herding them towards it”.

What is more likely, though, is that more of us have bought into the biggest lie that porn tells us, which is that this is normal. Back in 2002 the band Trucks hit the nail on the head when they sang:

“It’s just porn, mom, you’re running away
You wouldn’t believe what the kids see today
It’s just porn, mom, and it won’t go away
Wherever you turn you find porn everyday”

Trucks, 2002

So should we be bothered, or should we take the advice to Trucks’ mothers and Chill Out, because “It’s just porn”?

As I was preparing for the teaching session, I turned to one of the most significant websites for those seeking to stay pure online, Covenant Eyes. The flagship service Covenant Eyes offer is internet accountability software, but the site also has a host of research, information and advice on the subject. One of their online publications is called ‘Your Brain on Porn’ written by Luke Gilkerson, it’s where most of the statistics and research in the following post came from. You’ll have to give your e-mail, but you can download it here.

What follows is uncomfortable and at times disturbing, and this is the sanitised version for general publication! But my guess is that you’ll think twice about using pornography once you realise how it lies to you. Here are four way you are being deceived:

#1 Porn lies about other people.

From the very start of the Bible we are meant to see our fellow human beings as having intrinsic value. Chapter one of the book of Genesis (‘the Book of Beginnings’) describes us as being made “In God’s Image” and that as His image-bearers we reflect his character and glory. But Pornography help us to forget that other people, especially women, have value as we learn to compare them to ‘Porn girls’.

This comparison was powerfully described by Naomi Wolf, writing for New York Magazine: “Today real naked women are just bad porn.”

But this comparison is not simply anecdotal. One of the most interesting studies into the effects of watching pornography was conducted in the early 1980s among North American college-age participants. This research, by Zillmann and Bryant, draws a number of conclusions, including establishing that consumers of pornography eventually compare their partner or spouse with images of porn models. More recent research (2002) backs this up, reporting that when men and women were exposed to centrefold images from Playboy and Penthouse magazine, their assessment of the ‘attractiveness’ or normal people was significantly lowered.

Now we might expect this sort of comparison, after all, when we listen to a great symphony or study a renaissance masterpiece, we can’t help but judge whatever we subsequently listen to or see against it. But pornography doesn’t just open our eyes to what is available, it reprogram our eyes to want fantasy over reality and it also seems to warp our minds and our judgement about people in other spheres.

Zillmann and Bryant divided the participants up into three groups. One control group did not view any pornography. One group watched a ‘moderate’ amount and the final group viewed a ‘massive’ amount of pornographic material over a six week period. As we would expect from 25 year old research, some aspects are now outdated, but it is not the analysis that is no loner true. What has changed since the 1980’s is that what was then considered to be ‘massive’ exposure to pornography could now be described, using Dr. Mary Anne Layden’s phrase, as the ‘Friday Afternoon Group.’

Gilkerson reveals the scale of the issue on page 10 of ‘Your Brain on Porn”:

“A recent survey of 29,000 people at North American universities shows 51% of men and 16% of women spend up to five hours per week online for sexual purposes, and another 11% of men spend anywhere from five to 20 hours per week. What used to be “massive” exposure is now common practice”

To see how pornography alters our perceptions in the non-sexual sphere, Zillmann and Bryant asked the male participants in the three groups to answer the question “do you support women’s rights?” 71% of those in the control group answered ‘Yes’ compared to 48% in the intermediate group and just 25% in the ‘massive exposure group’. It seems that the simple act of watching pornographic films significantly reduced the likelihood of a man giving value to women. Gilkerson concludes:

“Often pornography, and even mainstream media, portrays women as people who are glad to be used and objectified. It isn’t surprising to find women increasingly devalued in our porn-saturated culture.”

#2 Porn lies about relationships.

But these days we are more sophisticated in our judgment about what we allow to influence our thoughts, aren’t we? After all, countless TV sit-coms proclaim how porn is no longer a ‘dirty little secret’, but something to be enjoyed together with your partner and even given as a gift or used as a vaccination against adultery.

But if we think that pornography is a positive factor in relationships we are kidding ourselves, because pornography blinds us to the most important thing that intimate relationships are designed for – giving ourselves to the other person and seeing our satisfaction and happiness as secondary to theirs.

C.S. Lewis, writing in the 1960’s talked about the consequences of sexual intimacy where the focus is on ones own satisfaction. In ‘The Four Loves’ he says:

“We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, at he “wants a woman.” Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. How much he cares about the woman as such may be gauged by his attitude to her five minutes after fruition (one does not keep the carton after one has smoked the cigarettes).”

With pornography, the ‘necessary piece of apparatus’ is no longer even another person, which further distances us from the purpose of intimate relationships. Dr. Gary Brooks, author of The Centerfold Syndrome, explains it like this:

“The glossy magazine pictures or pixels on the screen have no sexual or relational expectations of their own. This essentially trains men to desire the cheap thrill of fantasy over a committed relationship. Pornography trains men to be digital voyeurs, to prefer looking at women more than seeking out genuine intimacy”

Zillmann and Bryant’s study also confirmed that pornography damaged relationships and even made sex less satisfying for those who used pornography. “Participants from the Massive Exposure Group reported less satisfaction with their intimate partners: they were less likely to be pleased with their partner’s physical appearance, affection, and sexual performance.” (Gilkerson, p3)

So pornography is not a marital aid, but a barrier to genuine intimacy and a killer of pleasure. Increasingly too, once a relationship has ended, it becomes a weapon. This week I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who rejoiced to hear that the website IsAnyoneUP.com was closed down by its owner Hunter Moore and the domain sold to anti-bullying site Bullyville.com. The site was live for more than a year, and it encouraged users to submit pornographic images and videos of the ex-partners, which were linked to social networking profiles. This genre of website is known as ‘revenge porn’ and it was very popular. IsAnyoneUp was receiving 300,000 hit per day and Hunter Moore had plans to develop the site with a mobile app and a TV spin-off, increasing the $20,000 per month which he was earning from advertising revenues.

Only the most naive of partners, then, would think that pornography is going to strengthen their relationship. But part of the deception is that porn not only lies about other people, it also lies about us, and causes us to devalue ourselves and doubt that we have any right to refuse to join in.

#3 Porn lies about us.

With all this pressure put on ‘normal people’ to try and live up to the fantasy promoted by pornography, is it any wonder that self-image is the biggest casualty? But again, the most worrying aspect of how pornography warps our judgement is not to do with image, but with what we think is acceptable.

To gauge how pornography might effect self-worth, Zillmann and Bryant asked their participants to consider a case study where a female hitchhiker had been raped and the rapist brought to trial. Participants were asked to rate how long they thought an appropriate prison sentence would be. In keeping with what we have seen before, male participants in the ‘massive exposure’ group recommended shorted sentences. The shock, however, came in the responses of female participants. Those in the ‘massive exposure’ group recommended sentences half the length of those in the control group. (77 months and 144 months respectively). The lesson is clear, women who are exposed to pornography consider sexual violence against women to be less serious then those who are not. They have also bought into Porn’s lie that we are less valuable than we are.

Now this is the really ugly side of the pornography industry and it is the secret that should turn casual users right off. Pornography promotes violence against women and seeks to silence those who speak against it. It does this by lying about what is normal and acceptable.

#4 Porn lies about what is normal.

Every so often a story hits the headlines about a young man who has been caught out by a comment he made on a social media site of some sort. a recent example (February 2012) was the comments written in an article on the UniLad website which suggested that with unreported rape statistics at 85%, it seems like “pretty good odds” they men might get away with forcing a girl to have sex with them. Following a brief media storm (and the threat of disciplinary action from Plymouth University against Jamie Street, the site’s CEO) the article has subsequently been withdrawn and the site re-launched, but when I visited today the lead article was a helpful guide to finding girls with such low-esteem or lack of judgement that they can’t refuse to take part in degrading sexual acts. So at least the sex is consensual now, but only just.

Social commentators have been quick to try and tease out the difference between harmless banter and incitement to sexual assault, but I’m not sure that the distinction is really there. Both seem to rely on the assumption that attractive women are simply there for the satisfaction of men, and that anyone or anything that might hinder that process is the legitimate target for abuse.

One such target for abuse were members of the Bristol Feminist Network, who has the audacity to be pleased that the Bristol branch of ‘Hooters’ had closed down. The group had been vocal in their opposition to the opening of the restaurant in the first place, and saw its closure due to as an indicator that the people of Bristol had voted with their feet and not become customers. On the afternoon of the closure, a member of BFN was asked to comment by the BBC, and they subsequently issued a press release, but the nature of the comments (on Facebook and personally directed against BFN) by ‘supporters’ of the restaurant was nothing short of open bullying and intimidation, promising to “kick [her] in the vagina” and that she was “a **** who needed to pay”. You can read the full saga, without my redactions here.

So why is it that seemingly rational men think that it is appropriate to talk like this, even among themselves, let alone on public forums? Part of the problem is that we have bought into the narrative which porn feed us about what is normal and acceptable.

Middlesex University recently published research that explored attitudes to this sort of sexualised banter by comparing statements which were published in these magazines with comments taken from interviews with convicted sex offenders. The magazine comments typically accompanied ‘soft-porn’ images in Lad’s Mags such as FHM, Nuts, Zoo & Loaded.

If you’ve got a strong stomach then you can try the experiment for yourself. Simply look through this list of statements and see which you think are the rapists, and which are the lad’s mags. The results were quite disturbing, with participants largely failing to distinguish between the sources. They were also more likely to identify with the quote if they were told it was from a magazine, even if the true source was a rapist.

And this is the narrative that not only accompanies pornographic images, it is built into the very fabric of the medium. To illustrate the problem we can look at the research of Robert Wosnitzer, Ana Bridges, and Michelle Chang, who analysed aggression in the adult DVDs

In their 2007 study of the 50 top selling adult DVDs, Wosnitzer, Bridges, and Chang recorded an act of aggression on average every minute and a half. Three quarters of the aggressors were men and nearly all of the recipients were women, but in 95% of the scenes the person receive the aggression acted neutrally or positively to it. The message is clear, violence against women is part and parcel of normal sexual behaviour. Is it any wonder that young men consider sexualised banter about rape and abuse to be normal, and that turning their boasting into action is a cause for celebration, rather than facing any negative consequences.

So is anyone still chilled out about porn? By this point in the youth group even the most nervously giggling member was sitting in stunned silence. But this is a subject we cannot afford to be speechless about. Porn is widespread, but it is not ‘normal’, and by refusing to discuss it we buy into the lie that it isn’t really an issue.

Pornography distort our view of ourselves and other people, which causes us to have impossible exceptions of real relationships. It also normalises violence against women and the right to take sexual satisfaction whenever we want. So let’s make sure that an alternative narrative is seen as the norm:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

(Philippians 4:8 – The Bible – NIV11)

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How much does it cost to buy-off God?

Today Christians across the country can breath a sigh of relief as the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced his plans to allow a small North Devon town council to continue its 400 year old tradition of saying prayers at the start of council meetings.

Following last week’s announcement that the National Secular Society (NSS) had won a ruling that local councils could not lawfully include prayers as part of their formal business, Eric Pickles is quoted to have said:

“While welcoming and respecting fellow British citizens who belong to other faiths, we are a Christian country, with an established church governed by the Queen.

“Christianity plays an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation. Public authorities – be it parliament or a parish council – should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish. The right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty.”

Source: Guardian Online

The announcement that Mr Pickles will rush section 1 of the new ‘Localism Act’ into force ‘within a week’ will no doubt mute the celebrations of the National Secular Society, as the new act will restore the rights of local councils to say prayers as part of their proceedings if they choose to.

So why is it that Mr Pickles’ assertion that we are a ‘Christian Country’ sticking in my throat?

It isn’t that I don’t applaud the decision to give councils the right to decide for themselves if they include prayers. Neither is it that I don’t enjoy the schadenfreud of seeing the NSS defeated in their latest attempt to remove the trappings of faith from public life. No, what I find so distasteful is the comparison between the Government’s reaction to the NSS case and their relentless pursuit of the Welfare Reform Bill.

In the former case, the Government are keen to cite our Christian heritage as a reason to keep religious rituals in public life. In the latter case they seem hell-bent on taking away financial aid from those in out society who are most in need of it. Could it be that the price of a clear conscience is allowing a little bit of public religion?

As I think of those who think that God is somehow pleased when we remember to name-check him, I’m reminded of Jesus’ words to the religious rulers of his time as he tells them that God cannot be bought-off with their religion:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices— mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law— justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former.”

Jesus Christ – Matthew 23:23

The big problem with public religion, especially the sort which we are forced to take part in, is that it tends to inoculate us against the real thing. And Jesus calls those who would come after him (and call themselves Christian) to pursue justice, mercy and faithfulness, not just to say a few prayers before we get down to business. Being a ‘Christian country’ must surely mean that we pursue matters of justice as well as maintaining those traditions which remind us of our Christian heritage.

I’m currently reading Timothy Keller’s book ‘Generous Justice‘, in which he presents the compelling case that through His Word, God is calling Christians to pursue social justice in their churches, local communities, nations and worldwide. Keller explains that God’s command in the Mosaic law that ‘there shall be no poor among you’ (Deuteronomy 15:4) is much more than an empty aspiration:

“God’s concern for the poor is so strong that he gave Israel a host of laws that, if practiced, would have virtually eliminated any permanent underclass”

Timothy Keller – Generous Justice, p27

I get the feeling that this assertion that ‘there shall be no poor among you’ is going to be increasing important to my church community over the next few year. This isn’t just because people around us are getting poorer (although many in our fellowship and parish will be hit hard by the ongoing financial crisis and associated austerity measures), but because I sense we are being called to live out this reality in our church family and our local community.

What this is going to look like I don’t know, but I do know that if we get anywhere near it we won’t be able to be accused of preaching an empty and irrelevant religion. Real faith in real action is what the Kingdom of God is all about.