Friday, February 04, 2011

Reviewing #LouisTheoroux and the Ultra Zionists with the aid of FoR USA

Last night saw a stunning documentary transmitted. Louis Theoux and the Ultra-Zionists was a 50-odd minute chance to look at a core problem in the Middle East.  Louis embedded himself with ultra-fundamentalist, religiously inspired, individuals who felt they had a religious calling, or prophecy to fulfill, by living in Jerusalem.  This embedding paid-off as individuals opened up to Louis, and then the viewer, about the reason they want to live in the West Bank.

It is difficult to put into words my reaction to the program.  Whereas the usual Theroux programme features high comedy, visual bright moments and Theroux gurning at a graphic description, this was something much darker.  From the outset, where settled-Australian explained how Palestinians had no right to live in Israel because this was Jewish land, to watching settlers fire guns in the air to scare off children, it was an intense and thrilling hour.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the program was the lack of response from Theroux.  By acting as passive observer, the ludicrous situation was highlighted even better.  A particular highlight of the approach occurred when his ever affable guide, and 'ultra zionist' guide, refused to comment on the circumstances under which palestinians had left property, and the morality of foreign supporters purchasing homes in the Arab part of Palestine.

Watching the programme I was reminded of 'The Montgomery Method', a style of non-violent direct action promoted by Fellowship of Reconciliation (USA) as a way of explaining the power of the civil rights movement in the USA. The first two steps (pictured left) challenged individuals to realise they were called to take action, the second is to imagine yourself in your oppositions place. Consider why they were there and what they felt they were doing.  This centring was very true of Theroux's programe.

But this comic book has life outside of one television program.  FoRUSA are suggesting that an Arabic re-print of the document has helped support revolutionaries in Egypt as the state turned on its people. It is certainly an inspiring document and one you can read in full via a different website.

Back to the program.  While there was much violence on screen, Theroux's usual 'cat in headlights' look was invaluable as settlers spoke freely. No longer was it possible for anyone to claim bias in a program. Instead, it was clear that there is an element within the society who would stay there regardless of the situation and who almost relish the potential to be agent-provocater.  

Thursday, February 03, 2011

looking forward to Louis Theroux tonight

The bumbling Englishman is core to the UKs media output. From Michael Palin to Love Actually there is a mirriad of films that enable an element of UK culture to be explored on screen.   A key player of this role is Louis Theroux. His films mix our voyerist wish with bumbling politeness and, through this, we have all enjoyed some stunning moments in television.

Tonight on BBC 2 he spends time with 'ultra zionists' living in disputed territory in Palestine. Many people have opinions of the region, the rights the wrongs and the challenges, rarely do we get the chance to hear from these most dedicated of Israeli supporters.

Looking at the back cataloge  of films, we could be in for a treat tonight. From living with Nazis to spending a turbulent time with Neil and Christine Hamilton, he has seen it all yet, always, forces the subject of the film to be the star. He is more an observer, prodding where appropriate and responding to events, that enables many a viewer to be part of a scene we are watching on screen.

Going back to tonights film I'm reminded that battles for justice demand a few simple facts. The first fact is the ability to put yourself in the other persons shoes, to understand their starting point and their outlook.  Louis's film is unlikely to be a political film, instead I hope it gives the chance for Israeli and Palestinian people to put their views across.  For it is through this outlook to film-making, including passive (slighlty probing) questioning he opens up many issues and his most successful films are made.

hears from the recent Methodist Student Meetup

Is work with students ‘core business’? We need to consider how what we do reflects ‘Priorities for the Methodist Church’ and our ecclesiology. There is a pastoral and spiritual need to be involved in student work, but similar things apply to others in the same age group or in other spheres of life beyond HE/FE. Is our primary aim to sustain the Church (particularly, to nurture its future leadership)or to be engaged in a significant sector of our society?

Times moves swiftly in Methodist circles. Seven years ago a paper was passed which removed Connexional level support for students. Mixed inbetween 'there is SCM and CUCCF' and 'financial reality' came the simple truth that time, effort and money for students just wasn't worth it.   Since then things have moved on - the Youth Participation Strategy has delivered a diverse and reinvigorated programme and Methodist students have done their own thing.

Last w/end around 50 students gathered in Birmingham for a special meeting of Methodist Students. Organised by students and attended by the President of Conference, this was a chance to see if a phoenix could be about to rise. I caught up with President of Bangor Methsoc, Paul Parker, to find out what went on:

I am a second year Theology Student at Bangor University in North Wales.  I am the President of Bangor Uni Methsoc, a very small society open to literally anyone, but many of whom have links with the Methodist Church.  I have always grown up in Methodism, although spent a few years within the Anglican Tradition and have a Note to Preach.

Where did the idea for the event come from?
Very much from the ground.  Birmingham Methsoc had the idea to restart a national event of methodist students, (athough NMSC is most definitely open to anyone with any connection to Methodism e.g. through a Methodist Chaplain, even if they belong to a different tradition).  Birmingham planned and ran the whole thing.

Why did you (personally) choose to attend?
I was really keen to support the event, personally being a Methodist can be quite lonely, much of the Christian-Student environment is Evangelical in its tendencies and so a was looking forward to meeting with other people of similar mind and in similar circumstances.  Also I wanted to support the Birmingham guys; it takes a lot of commitment to put on a National Conference and I did not want it to go to waste.  Finally I was attracted by the President of Conference as a keynote speaker.  I would stress, though, that I would have decided to go even if she had not been speaking.

What was a highlight of the event?
Can I have 2 highlights?  Firstly all the moments of fellowship we shared together.  The chats that we had with each other were incredibly encouraging.  We face similar challenges; relationships with other Christian organisation of a narrower mindset, low membership, concerns about committee elections etc and it was fabulous to be with people who understood that.  Secondly Alison's first sessions was incredible.  We had a very open discussion with her, and her thoughts on the future of the church were truly inspiring.  Sadly to try and condense that session into prose would not do it justice!

What surprised you about the event?
The Worship!  Don't get me wrong, I like worship at weekend conferences, but often find them strained and tedious.  This was not the case this weekend.  The range of media for worship was superb, and I loved being able to meet with the Living God through silence and chant.  it was a great spiritual refreshment I was not expecting!

 What was the value in having a Methodist named events ? Surely we live in a post-christian/post-denominational age...
This is a very interesting question and one we discussed at great length at a few junctures of the weekend.  Extensively so in the session considering what we did next.  The first assertion is that it was not a "Methsoc" event, because there are so few of those around anymore, so the language chosen this year was "Methodist Students" and included any uni student with any form of connection with a Methodist Chaplain.  In reality the vast majority of people at the weekend did attend Methodist congregations and there was a sense that using Methodist at all deterred those didn't, but would have been greatly valued.  At the same time, a specifically "methodist" even in the loosest sense is valuable.  Our motley gang could never aim to be anything like SCM (as one example) in trying to be that large and that diverse.  Also this weekend, and hopefully subsequent weekends looked at the future of British Methodism quite specifically.  Having a specifically Methodist event gives us license to do so!

Personally I am one of six students in a far older congregation, and to be with people my age who had experiences of Methodism, who were coming from a similar place was very helpful.  Mundane things like not having to explain the itinerant nature of our Ministers, what a Local Preacher or the Preach Plan are, how we are governed connexionally etc was quite nice.
  But I am conscious that our Methsoc members who were not there, and are not Methodists would have found the worship and Alison's thoughts on prayer and silence of great value.

Could the national conference be made more ecumenical?  Yes, it could, but for me it would lose something.  There is a sense that we would be biting off more than we could chew however I think it is vital that our Methsocs and our Methodist Chaplains are working ecumenically and invariably that will feed into NMSC events.

This answer does not have a tidy conclusion or a neat summary.  We left the conference acknowledging the difficulty in terminology and pitching the "target audience" of the event.  But we all left enthused and will recommend it to our non-methodist Methsoc companions now we are back!
What message does Methodism have for students today and how can it deliver that?
As a Methodist looking out to the rest of my Uni Methodism can offer a message of inclusiveness.  I love that we aim to be an inclusive church where anyone is welcome.  We aim to replicate that in Methsoc, and I think there is something really important in the church opening their doors and welcoming anyone and everyone who enters through them, I think students who do can find a real blessing; they can find acceptance, love, they can find a place where they are not judged and they can meet with the Living God.

As a Methsoc - how does the Methodist Church  i) Locally  ii) Nationally support you in the work you do 

Locally we are supported very well!  The Chaplain, who is a Deacon working part time with us and part time in another area of ministry is incredibly supportive and of great value to us!  The local church is also incredible.  The Circuit has funded a number of our activities and there is an amazing group of church members who cater for our Sunday Lunches.  For many of us the local church is a great family, and we know that they love Methsoc and totally behind it.

We get less support nationally.  We attended Methodist Youth Assembly but apart from that have far less interaction with Methodism on a national level.  In some ways 
(although by no means every) we feel overlooked on a national level.  There are few Methsocs left, and their numbers are low.  Chaplaincy work is a tad more successful but still quite small.  This is unlikely to change, there has been a downward trend on students professing a link with Methodism at universityand on one level we wonder if people even know we are here. 

Will there be any future events or was it a one off?
Definitely future events!  Durham Methsoc have already offered to host the event next year and Cambridge have signaled they are keen to host 2013.  Also a great sense of fellowship grew over the weekend and we are looking to continue that over the year; facebook is a great tool for keeping each other in the loop, and Cambridge have invited Bangor to visit one weekend.  We have all come back and raved about how great the weekend was; this was just a beginning!

So it looks like there could be future self-organised events for students. This is good progress, however it can only be good progress if it doesn't sit in isolation.  The event was with a fortnight of Student Christian Movement's annual conference and it would take a very dedicated conference-goer to attend both.  I'd suggest future events should be better planned.  But don't let this take away from a simple fact - students self organised and got together to share, learn and grow.  All within a denomination that is both inspiring and frustrating, and one that aims to be connexional yet had cut support for that specific group off. Indeed it is clear example of how death can lead to new life. I would hope that a few successful groups later pressure can be put for beginning connexional support for student work...but only after the younger age range is sorted first.

Denominations are a great resource for creating communities around the country, however some of the truly inspiring moments are created when students come together at a national event, loosing denominational ties, to pray, worship and campaign for justice and one denominations relative success shouldn't inspire a wild spate of sectarianism - instead it should challenge all to re-evaluate what the value of ecumenical work is and how best to support those who find faith through a particular church, and those who find faith through specifically ecumenical worship.


Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Blistering Barnickles It's Blundering Bishops?!

Childhood character Captain Haddock, long suffering bearded companion of intrepid reporter Tintin, had a fine line in alliterative expletives. I was reminded of him (and his fine way with words) when a group of bearded wonders were implied to be 'blundering bishops' for wading into an entirely secular  debate about voting systems in this country.

The harsh words were raised when Ekklesia reported that ten Bishops had signed onto the YestoAV campaign.  While Libertarian blogger Guido Fawkes and ex founder of Conservative Christian Movement Tim Montgomerie both  tried to smear the campaign endorsement, (see Guido Fawkes blog and Tim Montgomerie twitter) my thoughts were more open.

Rather than form my own mind from snatched twitter comments and one news story, I thought I'd go to one of the signatories and challenge him.  Bishop Alan, blogger and twitter extraordinare, is no stranger to this blog or indeed to many of my readers. His continued presence, and want to speak out, have really helped open up a level of church hireachy by demonstrating you don't loose interest, passion or humility just because you wear a mitre.

Bishop Alan - Blogger, Twitter and Interesting
I started by asking why voting is an issue that Bishops should be concerned about.  His response was considered and worth repeating in full:

"Bishops are citizens too. Having an antiquated and unjust voting system that tend s towards an infantalised edcision maing process dominated by party managers in their own interest doesn't do any good.  It's a free country in which bishops are as entitled to speak as anyone else and, moreoever, its unfairness makes our present system seem morally shabby"

This lead nicely into a fuller answer given to a more fundamental question about the Bishop's actions - does the group of bishop's endorsing this campaign mean Bishops spiritual should speak out more often in the Lords?*

"It's not easy to work out what the Lords should be about when the Commons suffers from a democratic deficit"

This was certainly an interesting statement and one that, had we had a face to face discussion I would have probed, however it was an email response so I'd best move onto the next part.....

Reflecting on the whole issue overall we get to the nub of the issue. The reason why he felt the need to sign on the dotted line and back the change in the system.  He has yet to hear a convincing argument against changing the system, therefore there is a need to change.  Indeed he laid out a challenge

"It is an issue on which Christians may take different views, of course. What would be nice would be for some defenders of our present system, Christian or not, to explain to us all what's so wonderful about it apart from providing safe seats for senior party hacks, and a string of things it manifestly does not do, like prevent coalitions (like now), provide clear changes of majority government (as it's only done once since 1885), or prevent long-term economic success (in face of the fact that Germany with a fair voting system devised largely by the British has been spectacularly more successful economically since 1945. Most of the arguments used to defend it are simply false. Could we have some true ones to consider?"

Since asking these questions of Alan, another bearded theologian has stepped up to the issue.  Pete Philips, part of CODEC and chair Methodist Faith and Order Committee (but, as ever, speaking in a personal capacity), fires a general broadside that challenges both Ekklesia and the Bishops about what their focus should be about.  His conclusion, after reading newspaper articles, asking folks on twitter and reflecting himself was that  "he (Jesus) would be telling Parliament to focus a little more on poverty and social exclusion within our society than on gerrymandering the electoral system". I'll be honest I was surprised by this conclusion so I thought it worth putting a few questions to him..... 

First I suggested that we can only focus on the issue of tackling poverty if we also tackle the issue of how those in power get there. Afterall, Should we not take action to ensure the public's voting wishes are properly reflected before taking part in campaigning concerning policies created by the same people?  Pete's answer was substantial and illuminating

 Our voting intentions cannot be properly reflected without us moving to full blown PR.  That’s not on the cards.  Instead, we are being offered AV – a system easily manipulated (see Australian commentators) and which will lead almost always to a coalition under our present 3 party system.  If coalitions are formed as it was last May, that will often mean throwing away key policies which voters have expressed an opinion on and replacing them with a mixture of policies which voters have not voted on.  It would be better to offer a coalition agenda prior to the vote otherwise we undermine voters intentions and the whole democratic process.  We cannot wait to deal with poverty, with cuts, with social deprivation – otherwise we are fiddling while Rome burns! 
..... We need to tackle poverty now while we wrestle with one another over voting patterns.  But for the Christian, poverty is higher up the agenda than voting patterns.  We follow Jesus example and Wesley’s exhortation to go not to those who needs us but to those who need us most.  If we have the energy to do both, great.  But we should not side-lined into the argument that AV is a kingdom issue to the detriment of our fight for justice.

The second question posed focussed upon a concern, floated by both Ould and Philips, that the Bishop's had been dragged into a simple argument over a complex issue. AFterall, even if we would wish it to be a complex debate, sometimes these things come down to simple a simple yes or no and there is no avoiding that. This time the answer indicated some theological reflection, and some enjoyably human concern...

The bishops seem to be saying that this is a question of morality and that saying YES is more moral than saying NO.  The Jubilee Centre and others (inc Peter Ould) have shown that it is not possible to map morality onto either side of this debate.  It is a moot point which has moral supremacy – probably neither do.  They are matters of debate – adiaphora  -what Wesley would call in his Sermon on the Catholic Spirit – matters of contention.  My point is that we will find Christians on the YES side (Jon Bartley, the 10 Bishops…) and Christians on the NO side (me, Peter Ould…) and it is not correct to say that either side is immoral or to make arguments about this being the time for the church to atone for her past omissions.
Yes, get involved.  Yes, argue strongly for the side you want but don’t dechurch the opposition as though it is a matter of faith and morality.  Hold together as fellow Christians and seek to make your arguments in love.
And don’t forget that in the end we are called to serve the poor
Overall it appears this issue should run and run - I'm certainly looking forward to hearing Jonathan Bartley, and others, speaking at a panel debate in Birmingham on Friday- however I am slightly concerned.  

The concern stems not from any arguments concerning either voting system, but that much of the heat stems from Christians inability to debate sensibly.  I think you could consider voting systems a very moral question and I don't find anything wrong with Bishop's declaring their hand. Indeed I wish they would more so - afterall some sit in the upper chamber and could have a key role in votes on the NHS, Libraries, Forrests etc. No, my problem is that some are upset because they disagree. For me this comes, in part, down to the immediacy of the issue.  

Listening to podcasts from JPITs conference (earlier this month) I am continually drawn to a  podcast of the talk by co-moderator of the URC.  She challenged those attending to realise the power of church community through preparing to make moral judgements on home affairs, with the clarity usually only affixed to world affairs.  After all, as she said, it is much easier to find fault in the small print when you are affected or think you know more due to your experience.  This voting system debate is one of the most crucial for decades and I, for one, am glad we are discussing the wider moral questions of power and how it is gained and hope many more step-up to the mark and say their piece.

*Note I appreciate that only certain Bishopriks include a seat in the House of Lord's

**Note 2) These discussions occured via a brief email interview and have only been edited for clarity.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sunday Song - The Miracle - Dedicated to David Kato

This week's 'Sunday Song' is dedicated to David Kato. This man was recently killed in very questionable circumstances.  He was killed after being 'named and shamed' for being a homosexual in the Ugandan newspaper 'Rolling Stone'. While the newspaper editor acts like pontious pilot, claiming that printing details of people isn't inciting violence, there stands the question about 'outing' homosexuals in a country where being gay is still illegal.

However the 'Sunday Song' is chosen because of the vile travesty that was the man's funeral.  While appreciating that sexuality causes many a vicar to get their knickers in a twist, I have never before heard of a minister of religion using a funeral to condemn the very principles that the person they are committing to God stood for.  That's right. The minister used the situation of Mr Kato's funeral to berate those who are homosexual as turning away from the bible.

As Freddie Mercury et all remind us, we are all miracles on earth. While some may interpret the bible in one way, and I'd choose another, we have no right to limit God's love and for me that funeral address crossed that line from challenging taste to near heretical.

So please, sit back and listen to the song and consider where today you'll find an expression of God's miracle that is not just humanity but life it'self throughout this entire planet.

Take Care Y'All