Tuesday 25 February 2014

Why Keep Waiting?

My comment to Colin Coward's piece:

Well I agree with all that, though I’m not a ‘follower’ of anyone and each sort of Church constructs its own sort of God, pretty horrible constructions they are too. I suppose you hope that this same institution somehow carries on and carries on and eventually, some generations later, for the descendents, puts its boundary around you instead of excluding and maintaining institutional relationships with institutions far far worse. But why should it be so? Why indeed wait – constantly waiting, constantly unwelcomed? I mean, a bishop who says, ‘oh you lay [gay] people who have got married. Em, you realise this departs from the Church’s teachings, and we won’t change them. You realise you couldn’t do it if clergy. But we can have some prayers – better in your home and out of sight, however.’ If I were on the receiving end of that, I’d tell him to get lost. I’d tell his institution to get lost too. I understand the desperate need to help people in Nigeria and Uganda, etc., but that is best done by governments that have leverage. You won’t tell the institution, the bishops, to get lost, and they rely upon that.

Friday 21 February 2014

Twenty Three Too Many

Anglican, Methodist and Quaker leaders have condemned the situation where people are having to go to foodbanks: the welfare system isn't working; the new Cardinal reflected the same earlier.

Nick Clegg in all his political sensitivity blames dole officials for landing people without sufficient money. How pathetic. If the Liberal Democrats had any moral and ethical sense left they'd chuck him out of their leadership. Cameron meanwhile surprises no one in saying the welfare reforms are some sort of moral campaign. Well, his a Tory. What do you expect? He's an airhead Tory who appears to be concerned, like with the floods, but it's all publicity and friends to him.

But the Liberal Democrats are turncoats, who deceived the electorate. Polls suggest they will have 23 MPs after the next election. That's 23 too many for me. I hope the good people of Sheffield kick out Clegg. It's all he deserves. No doubt, like Blair, he'll go on the make millions and we'll all see what a scheister he has been in his recent political life. I hope he isn't one of the twenty three, if it's as many as twenty three.

Saturday 15 February 2014

When it is Time to Go

I comment on the Church of England less and less. I made a decision to leave it completely once I moved locally, and have settled on that position. I used to argue against its institutional position on just about everything (!) but retained a sort of dissenting local connection until just over three years ago. I'd go on and on about Rowan Williams standing on his head thanks to his theology: I've hardly mentioned Justin Welby. Basically, I don't care about his position.

However, after the Pilling Report has appeared, the Church of England's guiding House of Bishops have now issued a Pastoral Letter and of course people with whom I had most in common find it a statement of incredibly stacked institutional duplicity. Nevertheless, the Pastoral Letter makes a statement that is more than a form of 'collective cabinet responsibility' to be found in government, when it says:

As our statement of 27th January indicated, we are not all in agreement about every aspect of the Church's response.  However we are all in agreement that the Christian understanding and doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman remains unchanged.

In other words, they are all in agreement, simply so. Ah, now the next question is, 'do we believe it?' but then this would accuse them as a whole of lying, or the few we suspect don't agree agreeing for the sake of it, or perhaps the few would prefer a non-Christian or semi-Christian understanding of marriage. But again, the statement is not 'The House of Bishops' view remains that same that' but that they are all in agreement.

After all, it can be argued that the Church for all practical reasons has a semi-Christian understanding of divorce. It is more Christian, perhaps, from a different perspective, to allow remarriage of divorcees, than it is to have a set Christian understanding of divorce (which would be the Jesus view of not to permit it). I doubt all the bishops are in agreement about the flexibility regarding divorce.

So what is the practical outcome of any of this? Well, some people who are Church of England confirmed and communicant will likely have (secular or other Church) same sex marriages. These couples may then receive prayers, but also will hear teaching that what was done was against the Church viewpoint. I'm sure they will appreciate being told that something so utterly shaping of their union was naughty in the eyes of their Church.

However, such a union will be forbidden to Church of England clergy, who have to set the standard. The most the clergy can do is have a Civil Partnership (if the choice remains that long) and thus can give a direct undertaking that their love does not involve connecting any of the body's plumbing. In reality, they won't (usually) be asked because the act of having a Civil Partnership will be seen as being sufficiently one side of a fine line to avoid the question.

Now I should be clear that I support same sex marriages for all folks, and indeed same sex marriages should be taken by clergy and offered by them. It's not a big issue for me.

Where I part from those who'd agree with me, and those I agree with, is about their place in the institution. It seems clear to me that the reason the Church of England is stuck with this policy and will be is because a large constituency within it is opposed to same sex marriage. It is 'biblical' or 'traditional' (Protestant, also Catholic in a long-standing duplicity sort of way) or 'evangelical' or 'New Wine' and all sorts. These are the people who are increasingly the sectarian ballast of that Church, and increasingly concentrated in fewer mainly suburban congregations they are also increasingly directors of the money. Whether these folks are a minority or majority, the fact is that in a Church of dogmatic statements they are the dogmatic upholders: they recite the list and give it plain meaning. The most conservative of these overplay their numbers, but as the Church shrinks their proportion rises.

Furthermore, calling itself 'Anglican', and with a legacy of Empire, the Church seeks to be in communion with some of the nastiest homophobic Churches in the world. The Episcopal Church, born of a Scottish non-juror connection to the Church of England (and all that) has always been at one remove to be freer in ethical actions than the Church of England and its more 'motherly' role regarding the homophobes.

But there is choice! We here live in a liberal democracy (just about) and certainly so when it comes to the increasingly marginal activity of Churches and institutions of faith. The compulsion that the Church of England has over society continues to diminish, even if it is still too great regarding schools (with people falsely attending church to get their children into certain schools). However, there are all sorts of Churches out there now, with varying degrees of orthodoxy from the most Orthodox to the strangest of heterodox, and some of these even have bishops. You can join groups that overlap with your real beliefs to your own acceptable extent.

And if you can't find a group that fits, you can always start your own. No one will come knocking and you can do as you wish. Just get disclosure clearance as no one implicitly trusts clergy near children these days.

In other words, in the end an existing institution has the right to determine its own boundaries, and for what ever real reason as opposed to the stated reason.

Now it may be that these boundaries shift, and there is a perspective on these things that protest may cause change and that it is worth staying for the duration until the change comes about. However, on this matter, this intsitution is clearly digging its feet in: it is not going to budge on its view of marriage, and after all how can it when so many of its core supporters would be less 'pastorally generous' not more and then homophobic institutions in Africa won't accept inclusion?

The conclusion I reach, and reached long ago, is that the simple matter of having equality in this matter is not going to happen. So clergy of similar sympathy really ought to do the honest thing and leave. Your complaint, protest, moaning even, only has purchase if the institution would change, if you could bring it about. But if you can't, and you don't want to be part of the duplicity, then get out. Do what you do somewhere else.

Friday 14 February 2014

On Education

I watched the BBC Three series of Tough Young Teachers where the trainees go through the Teach First route, that is the training is 6 weeks and then the deep end practice-wise. The University approach is little different these days - much is practical. I notice that one of the teachers was a magician-entertainer, and that background does create a connection that works for teaching. Yes, there is 'entertainment' in the classroom, sometimes called 'interesting', but the serious point is that an entertainer knows how to connect.

I actually did teacher training twice. The first time was after failure with Unitarian College and the intention to be a minister, where I also did a university Psychology of Learning course (rather than repeat what was in my PhD in a Social Theology MA course). I went for a PGCE via Sheffield City Polytechnic, as was, and being Business Studies we had the option of teaching one practice in Further Education. Much of the course was teaching theory, and the tutors were generally opposed to the introduction of the National Curriculum because they thought it would deskill teaching. My mistake was to do FE first and then come a cropper with the school practice, and it was clear I wasn't going to get a PGCE. I did some RE teaching in the school, and learnt a lot rapidly about how it is a spare lesson, one in which to waste time, where the pupils had the freedom to take on the teacher. In the rest of it, I didn't engage enough with the students and I didn't like the battle.

The second time I did it at the University of Hull, and discovered that a lot of the theory of teaching had been thrown out. Now the National Curriculum was embedded and teachers did as they were told. To be professional was to fit in and (of course) follow senior colleagues. There was a great emphasis on neutrality of personality, to present a bland front to pupils as a means to gain discipline, but if you were 'singled out' as a teacher at least you would be remembered as making a difference (somehow). The first practice was in a school where everything was regimented, and I followed on, and so they thought I did well. (In fact I did so well I never issued one detention, but then I never did anywhere.) But towards the end I was seen to be 'slipping' and I knew the truth was that I was doing as well as the regimentation. In the second school, the posh kids cruised along but the RE class was badly managed. I wanted all pupils to face me but the teacher wanted them around tables, so always 25% couldn't see me. The teacher was known for classes of bad behaviour, but it was a 'good school' because they were almost all from well off families. The fact is I had no authority over the students, and an interest in the subject is the least important aspect of teaching. I passed this time but was deeply dissatisfied.

The only advantage I can see with the Teach First approach is that if a school finds a good teacher then there is a real chance of continuity, simply because you can stay at that school. I might have done better had I stayed at the one school for both practices.

I am rather dubious about the 'outstanding', 'good' and 'satisfactory' labels for the trainees. It strikes me as being as dishonest as many of the exam grades and school league table statistics. One of the trainees who struggled was given 'outstanding'. If you're not, it will catch up with you.

However, what makes a good teacher from who isn't to be a thin line of division. If you set off with poor authority over classes and you've 'lost it' early it becomes very difficult to claw authority back. The only way it seems to be able to 'succeed' is also if you throw the whole of your life into the job, and in the programme a student teacher did this while constantly on the edge of being told she wasn't good enough. She managed to get over the line and did it while flogging her guts out. There are some people to whom it all comes more naturally, because they are able to make relationships. I can't remember individual names, so I don't even get going. The first thing to do is remember names and call people individually, but actually you have to develop knowledge of the people being taught.

When I taught at sixth form I had hoped that there might be more emphasis on the subject from students choosing the academic route and who had passed five GCSEs at A to C including English and Maths. However, I realised that many of them had been processed through these exams and lacked both literacy and abstract thought. The head of department's solution was writing and memorising passages that would be placed into essays and presumably exams, and we taught the essay plan each time for the slotting in. Teachers elsewhere leant on the text books, and all I could see was lessons that in schools would be boring and lead to disruption. Indeed I knew the students were bored. The subject could have been anything and they were starting to be disruptive, even at sixth form.

I could see why exam results were getting better and better and yet universities were holding remedial and study skills classes at the same time. When I left I said to the students that I tried to treat them like students going to university, but they needed to be taught (as by the head of department) more like as at school.

I don't believe any of the school statistics these days, either getting better and better or made to get worse. I don't believe in the inspection regimes, either as has been or the new ones that will allow more didactic teaching - a move away from student centred learning (which wasn't anyway - as the student in my class said, "Adrian, will you spoonfeed us?" after I said I wouldn't do this). Each insitution is involved in a statistics race, and it was and remains thoroughly dishonest. It doesn't measure learning. The big hope now is that making schools more 'corporate' and shiny with their own management teams will add to the push to improve results. The Blair years started this, where what glitters is reported to be gold.

After school, employment programmes repeat again and again literacy, numeracy and ICT to young adults who, one would assume, have never been to school, when they went for years and achieved actual exam results. It's a condition of national deception. Oh and I don't believe the unemployment statistics either: they are no measure of economic inactivity, and definitely no measure of productivity over activity.

American (United States) education is also failing because of actual public squalour and the deindustralised economy where social mobility is falling. There's a great deal of underemployment in a more savage market system.

In my view there has to be a complete reverse around for education to succeed. The National Curriculum ought to be scrapped, and teachers given the professional ability to design curriculum as well as schemes of work and lessons. There ought not to be an objectives to assessment quantitative approach (must be 'demonstrable' - when was learning in the round so 'demonstrable'? There's got to be more emphasis on learning to learn and getting abstraction into teenage years. Becoming an adult is a qualitative process, and we should stop confusing education with training. If a pupil is bored with education then there is every reason to say go and get training in something and come under the disciplines of working - why faff about for yet another year in school? Let the others learn to learn more. Schools should be communities but not corporately competitive: rather, they should find and support one another with the practices that fulfill.

Channel Four's Educating Yorkshire showed a group of senior teachers and staff interacting with difficult and needy students, and generally turning them around. But we saw how they did it. Two of them had no relationships at home, and simply slogged their guts out at school. They knew their pupils and thought about them morning, noon and night. One wondered if the Head Teacher ever really switched off for maybe three weeks of holiday. Well, he was like a Chief Executive, but again knew key pupils. Those still teaching sweated out their classrooms as hives of activity driving lessons forward. That's the price.

It's no wonder that when a good potential teacher leaves the authorities in situ get angry - "betrayal" was used - and also no wonder that some 50% of teachers leave the profession within a few years. Plus there is a movement to remove crap ones like me, if they can be spared. It simply doesn't work, because it is all about a person's charisma and ability to have authority against disruption in the pursuit of statistical displays. It's time to get counterintuitive and scrap the whole statistical show and return to more practical and profession driven approaches. Give some an early leave and get training and working, and allow schools to be really autonomous when it comes to the knowledge of education.

Monday 10 February 2014

Depth Versus Width

The fact is that for many people, Unitarianism is transitional. We have to expect a traffic that comes in and goes out. The old motto was 'catch a falling Christian' but it didn't necessarily provide a soft landing. Some carried on falling, I recall thinking I went into orbit around a religious humanism.

Depth has priority over spread. One new attender joined when wobbling about a conversion to Reformed Judaism. That, with hubby, was resolved, and maintained. Inevitably that must be the main faith tradition and its process of entry is so demanding that it calls upon to be the dominant tradition. Circumcision, naked orifice-free tevillah (baptism), learning Hebrew, passing a Bet Dien, all indicate a singificant shift in personal biography and one that identifies with a whole history of a people.

The Reformed tradition in Britain includes what is a Conservative one in the United States: Liberal Judaism is to its theological left but Reform Judaism does include what one might call 'practising atheists' - who observe religiously but rather doubt the deity's existence. Actually, I get the same happens in Orthodoxy.

You get similar divisions in Judaism as in Christianity. The Orthodox do not recognise the Reformed Jews; Israel does, although the Orthodox has the whole births, marriages and deaths in its grip in that territory. The whole Zionism thing is an unfortunate, reactive ideology, based on eastern European repression, many originally being socialist, and even worse is the piggy backing of extreme right wing zionist Christians of the sort that occupy satellite television stations. The Ultra Orthodox were not originally pro-Israel in that Israel proper would appear first and then they would move there. Now they move there ahead of this transformation of Israel in the Ultra Orthodox view and have thus joined the Zionists.

Time for a joke. A newly converted Jew, who is well into how it all works, is lost at sea but gets a message out that he's safe on a desert island. His rescuers arrive and ask, "Why have you built two synagogues?" He replies, pointing to one of the Shuls, "That is the one I wouldn't be seen dead in."

What if history had been different? If the Germans had won the First World War or at least not been humiliated in defeat there's have been no Hitler and no Israel in reaction. Had the Germans won WW1 the British Empire would have survived but had its wings clipped. WW1 was something of a civil war among European royalty and old elites, it's just that they turned on the nationalist tap and over-ran the advice of Keir Hardie - that the war of the Germans is not our war. It wasn't the war of the industrialised working class but of some self-destructing feudal elites.

Perhaps Israel as a nation to protect a people might have been in South America, say, not far from Wladfa (the Welsh for Patagonia - not quite a nation state but an example of ethnic immigration into an area). All right, Wladfa isn't a parallel, as it now is a Spanish speaking area like the rest except for a retained habit of chapel singing of some hymns in Welsh. We're talking about a fully functioning State.

The local Jews in the land of the former Ottoman Empire were joined by a determined movement of a people, a people who turned to terrorism to set up their State on the principle that you can't protect a people in the world unless it has a State somewhere. Given where it formed, it now uses the mythology of the Bible to encroach on the land of others. I mean, when you build a garden fence you generally place it just inside your borders, whereas the fence around Israel is the equivalant of building it through several other gardens. It's all bullying, and depresses one that the poacher has turned gamekeeper so destructively.

I'm not sure of the view that Unitarianism cannot provide depth. It's not easy, but there is plenty by history. It is mainly width, across a plane, and can borrow and remake what others have. So one understands the attachment to Reformed or Liberal Judaism as one can the use of Liberal Catholicism or Anglicanism in Christianity, even when virtually atheistic. There is depth to draw upon in the one mythos.

Another way to look at this one deep versus spread across is that Unitarians draw on the mimetic over the mythos, which means more towards argument than story and towards reason rather than emotion. In the everyday discourse, then, representation is through the mythic whose text is story and appeal is emotion, contrasted with the more scientific discourse where the representation is mimetic and text is argument and appeal is reason. So the Unitarian is 'bad religion' in this sense, constructed out of mdoenity instead of premodernity, whereas depth religion is mythic religion and premodern.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Hull: No Rebuild

So the Hull Unitarian church will not be rebuilding its front and adding on some new rooms and a small upstairs accommodation.The original plan was something like as in the picture to the right. I coloured it up so it may have had a different colour scheme. Modernist and minimalist designs - what an architect today thinks a church should look like - were ditched in favour of something almost from the English Reformation itself. The alternatives imagined were something postmodern, that is with different features jumbled up that gave a church appearance, like a cone for a steeple and some sort of lighting.

It is a surprise decision. I likened the decision in Sunday's Congregational Meeting to the Grand Old Duke of York, but welcomed it. I said, "Sometimes the Grand Old Duke of York has to look where he is going and take a decision to stop." I also said we were coming down the hill at speed. It was a surprise outcome to a very recent meeting of Chamberlain Trust Trustees and follows a long made consensus within the church to go ahead with the plans, even though there were always people opposed.

I was expecting nothing more than an update of, indeed, dates of closure and confirmation of the length in months of closure. Had people raised objections, I would have supported the consensus apparently achieved and not to go back on it at this late stage. But that's the problem, that there remained objections and yet a consensus achieved. Also, by now, considerable emotional investment was given into the project, so the reversal is all the more involving.

There are two principle and rather opposing reasons for the unexpected turnaround. The first is the decline in attendance on Sundays. People have drifted away. The problem here was if we met elsewhere, in transition, we would do so occasionally. The building would be shut for six months and the danger was acquiring the habit of not attending. It's why I'd argued for weekly services wherever we were going to meet, which raised serious problems about who'd present the services (I answered that by saying I would - I'd have built up the written services we have available and so far used in emergencies - but not everyone wants me taking services so often). The danger then was a brand new looking building, with extra accommodation, and no one actually being the church within it. Everyone would have to be gathered back in, and we are not very good at gathering back in.

The second reason for the turnaround was the Friday gathering of a coffee morning that has attracted, if not big numbers, at least a different and moving clientele who like the company and the conversation. To close would cut off the one area that has seen some sort of continued positive activity and it takes time to build up a flow of people into the coffee morning.
Certainly the whole matter has been instructive regarding decision making. The project had a huge push about it, and I was one person receiving complaints about the loss of the building for the transition time. So it was that at one meeting last year I threw a spanner not into the works but to make a noise, to say that there wasn't the agreement that was assumed, the result being that several people then spoke up against it. Despite all the plans laid out, explanations were necessary to show that the outcome would be an improvement - for example in direct access to a meeting room/ office, and not disturbing others using the church. Toilet and storage facilities would be much better.

My own view was and remains that on needing to change we move site. The Victorians did and they moved to a suburb. They had a catchment area for users of leisure, welfare and education, and a middle class locality but wider attraction. The equivalent is western Hull today - we do not have any more a working class leisure, welfare and education role. Those earlier 'outer circle' activities, like the Sunday School, have all died. We are now specialists of religion but there is nothing wrong in being situated on good roads in a residential area. The benefit of my plan is you shut the door of the old one week and move into the place with better ofice and meeting space the next.

Nevertheless, one should never underestimate the attachment people have to a place and a building. It has long been known in ecumenical studies that 'mergers from above' don't work well, as those who inhabit the closed building often do not transfer to the new building. So my plan isn't exactly watertight, even if it is rebuilding out of sight. But what the present site cannot generate is that community feeling that a church can in a housing area or at the centre of a small town.

Nor do we provide a distinctive alternative, because there is no sense of competition and restriction in Hull. Hull is so secular that no church is doing well. The only successful churches are the sectarian ones and one on the far outskirts of Hull into East Yorkshire, where people travel very far for the its very Anglican services. It is a large car park type church - a prosperity charismatic presentation.

But there has been at least one welcome revolution in Hull. It seems we are going to sit in a circle or horseshoe as a standard practice now, with rows of seats more occasional. For years I've wanted half circles and similar, and now it has come about in the heady atmosphere of the ten thousand men marching down again.

In two years or so we may look at the rebuilding again. The outcome seems to be the need to have some sort of professional input, ministry or otherwise, regarding development, as tasks and participation are shared out. There is experience (including relatively nearby) to draw upon, as well as research.