Thursday, 17 July 2014

Death of the Denominations

I wonder which will be the first denomination to collapse.

It could well be the Unitarians. I don't know how long locally the weekly service can continue with such low attendances. There is a body of people to draw upon who could sustain it if they only attended each week, but each week already people like me are coming by obligation to keep the show on the road. In the past a church like this would have closed. Now we keep it going, hoping one day for a 'bounce' as has happened in other places - the random two or three that come and stay, and eventually more attend.

The problem is that there are plenty of people out there who used to attend, but now do not any more.

Recruitment is random, and we are addressing now the sense of drift. There was a time when we liked variety and different preachers every week. However, it obviously hasn't sustained interest and the need now is for more co-ordination, and a leadership from the front rather than from behind. It needs co-ordinated ministry.

I don't think for a minute that this is unique. The church, like many, is now badly located. I would go west, young man, because one feature of the more successful Unitarian churches is that they have parishes locally, that they can form communities within communities. You can't do that in a city centre.

Another success type is in the metropolis where there is enough choice for a church to specialise - either humanist, or Christian, or Pagan, or Eastern. The big umbrella has much to commend it, but if the rumour going around is that my church is 'humanist' then perhaps it should develop this identity. A preacher we find very acceptable, because he thinks, is theologically competent and gives personal reflection, was warned that certain features of his presentation might not be appropriate because we are 'humanist'. Not so, in fact, but the 'humanist' label is only comparative to other Yorkshire congregations. And when your congregation is so low in number, what is it to have such an identity anyway? Two of us who attend are Masters level in Theology and Religion anyway.

The other churches in Yorkshire are not exactly doing brilliantly either. One closed last year, and others have handfuls attending. The tradition is historical, and often I think is presently irrelevant. As gay friendly we could be a gay inclusive church, but no effort has been made to register for rites of passage.

Hull is also very secular in surroundings; I would challenge any of those so-called successful ministers to come to Hull and build the church. Any success of course would be considerable in terms of a lifeline of a future, but this territory is more than tough. I live in the largest parish in England for the Church of England in terms of population - and 80,000 people provide 80 people attending each week across a number of churches. This is indeed residual religion.

Let's not get the idea either that, say, Baha'is and Buddhists are doing any better. Their numbers are insignificant. The Baha'is thinking they are the next world faith are a pinprick of membership in the UK and many of them when signing up simply leave because of the monetary and bureaucratic burden heaped upon them. New religions are as troubled as old. Pagans manage things because they keep flexible and associative. Buddhists have regional centres and classes, and these are their own pay-centres.

By and large Unitarians have plenty of money, no people and lack imagination about how to gather. Unitarian regional and national meetings are always more creative and exciting and interesting than the weekly fayre in badly attended chapels.

Unitarians are now so used to bobbing along at the bottom that they seem to go on an on regardless. But it is a denomination in the winter of its life.

My bet is that the United Reformed Church is the first main Church to collapse. I suspect this is the main reason why it has become the one gay friendly mainstream Church. It maintained numbers by taking over Scottish denominations, even at the cost of theological conflict over adult baptism, but its congregationalist inheritance gives internal flexibility for difference - as over the gay issue, even if consensus wasn't achieved at the top for variation within regarding gay marriage.

But the much bigger Methodist Church is tumbling down the numbers too. After all, if it has the same top-heavy age range, it collapses by the same proportion and speed as others. As I understand it, the Methodists have actively closed surplus churches (something the Unitarians cannot do) and moved people together. It does have a younger element, but a tiny portion, and no doubt they (if they continue, and most don't) will give it a bit longer than the URC. But, in the end, the disappearing disappear proportionately.

Inevitably the Methodists won't die but will absorb into the C of E. It has missing bishops so that's relatively easy to sort out, whereas the URC has no bishops and cannot re-absorb. To absorb the ex-Puritans, the C of E would need not just theological bishops for existing minority groups but leaders that were not bishops at all and not recognised as such. Either that or the URC starts calling ministers bishops on some new and convenient New Testament re-reading.

I think it is between those two as to which dies first, but my money is on the URC.


Saturday, 5 July 2014

ROFL SHARIR

First, let's get the jokes out of the way.

Before: It took a while to bring Rolf Harris to justice. Police initially stated that Rolf Harris has an extra leg to stand on.

But later: Judge: Members of the Jury, have you reached your verdict?
Jury Foreman: Yes, your honour, we have. Can you guess what it is yet?

And afterwards: It's such a shame to hear about Rolf Harris being found guilty of sexual offences. He touched so many people in so many different ways.

At the Animal Hospital. "How long do you reckon, doc?" "Five years and nine months, half that if fortunate."



My pub-going friends being into football, unlike me, would tell me about listening to Stuart Hall's commentary and that it was brilliant and surreal with his literary asides. And then before the crown court case he pleaded guilty. Suddenly they had to revise their view of someone who was something of a hero to them.

(To me, Stuart Hall was a sociologist and multiculturalist. He died fairly recently. He was something of a hero too via the Open University.)

I've had to do similar revision regarding Rolf Harris, partly because I didn't like the sneers long directed at his artwork. Now his artwork is apparently at ten per cent of its former value, from originally tens of thousands of pounds per picture, and the existence of the 2005 picture of the Queen he painted is unknown. Well, it's still public money and someone ought to know where it has gone.

Rolf Harris never pleaded guilty, and so with the evidence against him thought his reputation and replies might win over a jury not to convict; but in that the evidence was delivered forensically they did convict and thus Harris has put his victims through the court forcing them to relive what he did. This surely adds to his sentence. His evidence was like a gamble of their word against his, and his word carried reputation - until Cambridge came along with a video undermining his 'never went to Cambridge' claim.

I remember being a witness at a court in a property dispute. When the verdict came, from the judge, the sense of winner takes all (on our side) and loser loses was incredible. The loser lost and there'd be no more bad behaviour from him. He lost. Verdicts are crushing and they really do deliver justice, when they do. Because a court carries absolute power - you must do what it determines - it acts as an alternative to violence and uncertainty. It allows decisions to be made and they are crushing to the loser.

The media that cannot say this and that suddenly has open season on the convicted. And so his work as an entertainer is being trashed.

The first thought must be to his victims. He clearly thought he could get away with momentary dives into young women's flesh in their most space-invading manner. It was far more than being touchy-feely and the wise person is not so-called touchy-feely. Far worse was the grooming and invasiveness that shattered the life of his daughter's friend, which was pure exploitation and taking advantage to someone trapped and made confused. Like with Stuart Hall, the past has caught up with him.

The court should give these people justice. When it comes to notions of forgivenness, the people to do the forgiving are his victims. Nevertheless, the rest of us should not be jumping all over him.

He was an oddball entertainer and carved a space out for himself. Nothing wrong in that. His big cartoons of course used television techniques of bright lights that left nothing to chance. But were his paintings that bad?

We've just had Traci Ermin's bed sell for £2.2 million. This is like someone having a joke. In so much modern art, the art is "exhausted by the description". Rolf Harris's art had some craft to it. But the question is whether it is good art.

We can't do objectively good art, because art is always going to be individual in preference. Rolf Harris's art might be equated with that of Jack Vettriano, who continues to be despised in serious art circles. I can see what is not liked in Vettriano's style and approach, but nevertheless his art has a kind of message and one that has populist connection. Rolf Harris's art does not have a message, and any one that comes is more by accident than design. His portrait of the Queen with her teethy smile suggests an ordinary grandmother type figure, but this is by accident not intention. He tried hard as possible to get a likeness and he ended up with that.

When I do a painting or drawing, the need to get a likeness forces the art into whatever direction it goes because of that - my art has a style but it is frustrated. Plus anyone can see that I struggle to get arms and hands right and often do not. But then I've looked at some photos and realised that if I painted those as seen they'd be unbelievable - too long, misshaped, hands too small/ big, fingers odd. I need to paint people several times to get the 'look' but it doesn't get the rest and additions to the figure are often in peril. A lot of my output is cartoonish and sexy; it does have a style. But while I was better than many in art classes I was within that limitation.

And that's how I'd view Rolf Harris. He was like a good adult education-level painter. He could, with preparation and several goes, tackle difficult subjects, and produce likenesses, but he never produced art that could transcend that level. He was good in terms of the ordinary.

None of this is altered by his conviction. What is altered by his conviction is insight into his choices, particularly his advice to children about not being touched in notions about your body being your own body and not someone else's. What was behind that? Well, that secretly he knew he was doing wrong, and his habit and opportunity overtook any caution or moral restraint, and of course by fronting such a campaign he deflected attention from himself as a possible doer of the same. Clever, but after a conviction, disturbing.

Some of my best pictures, where something starts to transcend the product, are quick ones, like Rev. Trevor Jones playing the violin, or silver goblets, or some landscapes. But most don't transcend the paint or computer colours arranged. They are limited to themselves. The best we do is learn and express, into a limited space of limited talent.

I'm saying then let's not trash a person for everything they did. There is a reason that people found Jimmy Saville creepy in a way Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris were not. Hall was football knowledgable and had a style. But these latter two were holding secrets, secrets that had affected others badly and would come back to them. Celebrity gave opportunity and power, and whereas others who might make a mistake of space-invasion and learn from it, they didn't and reckoned they could carry on largely as they did. What was for them gratifying left a trail of destruction for the others they involved, and the others have come back for justice, and justice they have. As the judge said, there's no one else to blame.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Liberal Democrats Get What They Deserve

I have been waiting for this day. The local elections gave a taste, but this was the reality, and this is closer to the truth of the next General Election as well.

I voted Liberal Democrat on the basis of its manifesto, and on the basis of its stance during the Labour government. During that time the Liberal Democrats were to the left of a hollowing-out Labour Party and took much of its urban vote. The student vote obliged too, with a promise of no fees and other politicians not telling the truth. Then Nick Clegg not only propped up the Tories, but did so with enthusiasm, thus stealing the votes from people like me who voted Liberal Democrat to keep the Tories out.

If the Tories were put in for stability, it should have been for no more than economic reasons, and not on the basis of Tory only economics but also the different approach of the Liberal Democrats at the election - closer to Labour. Fanciful Tory policies should have been ditched to when they win an election.

Instead, the Liberal Democrats have gone far further than any Coalition Agreement, and thus introduced the Bedroom Tax and Council Tax to the poorest. Who'd have thought it - the Liberal Democrats introducing poverty to the poorest? Their tax cuts for the 'hard working families' - that nasty mantra - one would expect from the Tories while making life easy for the wealthy, which the Tories were able to do.

During the election UKIP was clever. It made a play for the white working class. I saw it during the election broadcasts. Thus Labour has been damaged, because the poorer voters were given somewhere else to go, even while Ed Miliband tacked slightly to the left on essentials. Such folk ought to read the UKIP manifesto, which as well as being anti-EU is pure right wing Toryism. But at least they are not parading as one thing, and doing another.

Clegg ought to go, and take the rest with him. This means Laws and Alexander in particular. They are all political crooks. Hopefully the electorate will remove them, especially Clegg in Sheffield. They all went native, ditching what they argued for at the General Election.

It's a bad day for those of us who are pro-European. I voted Green, and I know there are contradictions in that vote for me, but I vote for the package as a whole nearest me as a whole. I'm sceptical regarding climate change and the Greens have my vote! The Greens are not pro-European Union as I am, although they co-operate among themselves and are constructive. Plus they have a refreshing democratic internal polity, rather as the Liberal Democrats have had and need to use now to unseat Clegg.

I will not vote Liberal Democrat again until Clegg is gone, and this 'orange book' bunch of pseudo-Tories is removed from power. Cable is acceptable - but barely as he privatised the Post Office. Who'd have thought that? No wonder the Royal Mail is moaning about having to deliver to rural and distant areas: that's why it was nationalised and once within the Civil Service. Let's have it back then, and the railways (a Green policy). One has to give some escape route from the present disaster, regarding Vince Cable and party remains.

Anyway, oh so disciplined, the disaster is so great for the Liberal Democrats that they are now surely having to do what they did to previous leaders in recent times. They won't, beyond the damage of chatter, but the blade is coming down now and the blood on the floor now will be thick and runny at the next election.

Lesson: Do not steal votes.

Oh this says it better:

Julian Critchley 25th May '14 - 11:26pm
@Radical LIberal

It’s not about Clegg. It’s really important that the remainder of the party don’t allow this to become some sort of Clegg-focused issue.

The 2010 party hasn’t shed two-thirds of its support because of Clegg. It’s shed two-thirds of its support because two-thirds of us didn’t want the Orange Book, didn’t vote for the Orange Book, and have been appalled to see the LibDem Parliamentary Party implementing the Orange Book. It’s far too late now for the MPs to try and “differentiate” with the Tories. They were elected standing on a manifesto, and ten years of policy platforms, which did not adopt a “public=bad/private = good” default position, which did not back massive public spending cuts in a recession, which did not support the hammering of the poorest and the feather-bedding of the richest, which did not support the further fragmentation and selling off of our health and education services. We already had two right-wing Thatcherite parties in 2010, and we didn’t vote for them. So why on earth the leadership expected to retain our votes when they decided to become a third right-wing Thatcherite party remains an utter mystery to me.

It’s not Clegg. It’s the policies which they have supported and implemented. Unless the rump party members realise that, then there is no way back. To be honest, I don’t see a way back anyway. The building of a viable third party, which took thirty years from 1981 to 2010, has been utterly destroyed in 4 years by the catastrophic political miscalculation of the current party leadership. It’s a tragedy for British politics, an absolute tragedy. But it’s not Clegg. Every single LibDem Parliamentarian who voted for NHS privatisation, for the bedroom tax, for Gove’s giveaway of our schools to his chums, and for the prolonging of the depression through masochistic economic illiteracy, is to blame.

This isn’t the worst yet. The leadership and MPs are still kidding themselves that 2015 won’t be as bad as this at Westminster. Yes it will. If the LibDems still have double figures of MPs, they’ll be lucky.


Sunday, 25 May 2014

Service with a Funeral Hymn

Perhaps I'm a little depressed! This service is about death as a perspective on life as a biography, but it tackles death itself. It's also a little creatively strange, with a section on 'Althea' and a bit on the sun (but it all, kind of, overlaps). One biography given is the of Jesus, in the sermon, recognised as strange in beliefs. I wrote the final hymn, given now in the detail from my list of hymn resources.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Doing Theology Via Thinking Animals

Recently the BBC has shown Zoologist and Professor George McGavin examine primates and their capabilities. He joined research teams in ther observations and occasional interventions for further observations. The three part series is called Monkey Planet.

I must admit I found it all fascinating and compulsive viewing, plus he is a very good presenter. All the time it has confirmed my view that we humans must leave our cousins to flourish in habitats we should also present. There is a good case that killers of these creatures can be charged with murder.

The reason is sentience and self-understanding, but also simply the right to be. The primates vary in what they can and cannot do, but they also socialise, have their own politics and have conditions of independent existence and even contemplative thought.

Sometimes a test of the residual value of theology is to apply it to such creatures. The usual Western Christian view is that animals do not sin and do not need salvation, and that they may well 'go to heaven'.

To make progress with any of this one has to suspend a lot of disbelief. By heaven I would not mean a place but, given the rest of the theology, a final arrival point at fulfilment. I am also assuming no need or reality in returning as different creatures in a cycle where only humans of good karma end up in a condition of no return. I'm assuming linear time and fulfilment.

If this is so (and I am suspending disbelief) then it seems to me to be nothing but speciesism to say that humans sin and need saving, but animals don't - why a dog might be blessed but is never invited to take communion.

Let's take the primate who is down the social pecking order and knows it. Researchers raise up a raft of bananas and watch. The senior monkeys get there first and gorge on the grub, but the poor one at the bottom of the monkey pile can only watch. It then hatches a strategy and delivers a false warning of predators. The monkeys on the raft scatter, and the lone creature is able to get at the remaining bananas.

George McGavin said that the monkey doing this strategy of deception won't be able to do it often. Well, why not? The monkey has had to think - what will cause them to get off that raft? It then impersonates. It views the result and acts on it. But are the others aware that they have been had? Do they know who did it. Do they have the capacity of supiscion? Do they act on it or realise it's fair? In amongst this is a debate about sinful behaviour.

We don't have that debate if monkey social order is by violence and we assume they know no other way. We do though look at our closest ape kind, the bonobo, and find that they make love not war, and shag like the best of them in making alliances and seeking comfort. Let's hear it for polyamoury.

Of course to be religious and act out exchange and gift rituals in excess of necessary exchange is to take matters a stage further. It is human trait for some of us to do the extra standing-back and making 'universal' gift-exchange rituals that intend to bind us as a people or community. Except, of course, many a monkey will sit and contemplate, and many will save time in one necessary activity in order to to enjoy extended grooming.

The difference between humans and other animals isn't language either. It is becoming clear that many higher animals have capacity for effective language. Complexity of language is not an issue. It turns out that the bee's dance for the location of food sources is not only highly complex but based on it being felt not seen. Its message of direction and distance is given to others in the dark. But regarding primates and higher creatures of the sea: they also learn, and part of the learning is done through language. Strategies for gathering and killing fish and the odd seal by killer whales varies across oceans and they tell and make their strategies around the group through language.

What they don't have, and we do, is a library. We store the information we learn and it can be accessed by anyone.

We also restrict via money, another universal symbolic device. Scarcity and value is reflected in the promise contained in coinage, or the electronic equivalent.

George McGavin introduced one primate who had 'crossed the line' into human company, which was part of his upbringing (and an ethical question there). The bonobo had been introduced to a language-based symbolic manipulation device to communicate its desires, wants and choices. Whilst humans sat about minding their own business, the bonobo made choices about food that were subsequently delivered, a bit like retarded people who use Tesco online. [Pictured: another kind of primate]

But it crossed the line in that whilst people sat about, it gathered up and broke and threw down woody material, then took a box of matches and lit a fire so that it could enjoy toasted marshmallows. Thus a bonobo used fire. No doubt it could teach other bonobos how to use fire, although it would still need to go to Tesco online to get boxes of matches. Nevertheless, there was a glimpse into one or more of species of human who learned that friction on a stick (they didn't have Specsavers and so no lenses) made fire and that fire transformed meat into digestible protein when on the plain.

Cooking is all about planning and preparation, which is why I have reverted to ready meals and the microwave. I bet the bonobo would love to use a microwave (I have two).

Now I don't believe in original sin, but I do think we live less well for others than we might (including animals), and all this planning and thinking strategies is about inviting us to live less well than we might. I don't think there is a final fulfilment (and certainly not reincarnation) but the gift-exchange is a chance to meet fulfilment, to bind further and contemplate a better way. Bonobos and others are not that far away from doing this.

If there are theological intellectual tools still worth using, try them out in relevance to animal life when it is social and not simply programmatic. The rescue of theology away from supernatural sillinesses may well come by its application in relevance to animal life along with us on this small planet.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Summer Conference Excitement


Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics
Helping people to think differently about animals
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The Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics
We are on the cusp of holding the most important event on religion and animals ever held.

The response to our first Oxford Summer School on Religion and Animal Protection has been terrific.

More than 60 speakers from around the globe representing all the major religions will be presenting from 21-23 July 2014.

Already we are almost sold out even though the programme has not been formally published. But it is now. See here for the three packed days of intellectual exchange and debate.

We are delighted to announce that the Most Revd Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Diokleia will give the opening presentation on ‘Compassion for Animals in the Orthodox Church’.

We have done all this on a very limited budget, but it will undoubtedly have a big impact on religious thought about animals.

In addition, the latest book in the Palgrave Macmillan Series on Animal Ethics is Christian Theology and the Status of Animals by Centre Associate Fellow Ryan Patrick McLaughlin. Dr McLaughlin’s book is a tremendous accomplishment – one of the very best to highlight the resources within Christianity for a positive view of animals. More details are available here.

We are also delighted to announce that Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s foreword to The Global Guide to Animal Protection has received international coverage and acres of comment on the web. It has really helped to put animals on the agenda of the churches. Details of the book are available here. Please help us ensure that every library in the world has a copy of these books.

All this adds to our core mission which is to change the world for animals by helping people to see animals differently. Without this intellectual change there can be no lasting improvement in the way they are treated. But there is so much that needs to be done, and we have so few resources. We work flat out here, seven days a week.

Every gift, no matter how small, is greatly appreciated. For details of how you can help see here.



With every good wish

andrew_sig
The Revd Professor Andrew Linzey
Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics
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