Saturday, September 07, 2013

A quick review of an afternoon seeing Alan Bennett's People at the new Rep in #brum

The dry-acidic wit on Alan Bennett was turned of faith, volunteering and the aristocracy as his recent ‘People’ transferred to the reopened ‘Rep Theatre’ in Birmingham, from the National Theatre in London. This part-farce, part socially observant satire is the latest offering from the writers pen and contained the usual wit and wisdom, the question is – would a man so famous for his short soliloquies manage to hold together the script for a full 2hr play?

The story

The tale is a simple one. It is a take on the decline of a stately home in Yorkshire and follows two sisters as they battle for the future of their family home. 

The current inhabitant is a one-time model and now long term recluse who spends her days sleeping in her chair and reading a back catalogue of newspapers to catch up with the ones she never read. She wants a life of glamour and excitement and is not happy about the suggestion of  giving the house to the National Trust. Instead, she courts an auctioneer (as his mysterious benefactors) and then later re-meets a former friend from the '60s who is now a specialist film maker.

The other sister is an Archdeacon who flounces in and out of the play and has an air of ‘don’t you know what is good for you’ about her.  She wants the house handed over to the beloved 'National Trust' and have done with it. The character, as with that of her superior (the Bishop) is unfortunately very two dimensional. Her acting is hammy and – worst of all – the character doesn’t have room to breath. Whereas the inhabitant has small moments to grow and mature in our eyes, the other sister never has the vulnerable moments and this feeling only increases as the play carries on.

This relationship is played out among a wider cast of characters who play bit-parts that fill out one scene and change before the next. Each scene grows and falls as a small playlit and somehow manage to capture the imagination for the whole 2.2hrs.

What didn’t quiet work

The problem for the whole production was that it somehow didn’t quiet sit comfortably as a story from one of the nations greatest writers. The actors and actresses had some fine turns, but this was undermined by hammy setpieces when the winning supporter renovated the space and by a preference for some of the actors to play up to the space. 

This second point seemed even more criminal because the joy of Alan Bennett isn’t just his wit, it’s his focus on the small details. The production was suffocated by its lack of being small.  The characters tried to fill the magnificent new stage with their presence, instead of - as rarely did happen - drawing us into their space by speaking and moving in small, quiet ways.

A point brought most dramatically to life with the closing scenes which somehow lifted the play to a better level and demonstrated how small, simple acts and movements can make a real difference and a well placed soliloque deliver a moving and challenging critique of society.

The acting is only as good as the text

However these are niggles. What is more concerning is something that no actor or actress can ever iron out. The inability of Alan Bennett to know how to write for young women and , in some ways, to ensure surrounding characters move beyond stereotype. The bishop was an awful character (with no space to grow) and the young leading female was a poor stereotype of an eastern European woman with accent and misunderstanding played for laughs.

Final conclusion? A solid 3.5 stars. Like the decline of a stately home, the overall fabric of the tale is left wanting but there are flashes of the authors true talent hidden within the walls.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Could Jenny be just right? #greenparty #houseoflords

The UK system of democracy is fascinating. It's main body is elected by first past the post, a less than proportional voting system. The check and balance to this group is a body (now) appointed by groups that sit in the body they scrutinise.

Today a list of peers was released indicating who was nominated on behalf of which party. As per usual it's an embarrassing mockery of the principle of fair scrutiny. Party donors and former elected leaders of representatives fill the list.

Two names stand out though. First is Doreen Laurence. Nominated under a labour flag, she had spent a decade fighting the system to bring justice. How will she continue that fight and challenge the system when being politically whipped and sitting among those who may have failed her and her case?

Image by Tanoshimi released under Creative Commons
The second is Jenny Jones. A former Mayoral Candidate and current Member of the London Assembly, her appointment at first appears like the usual affirmation of the political norms. However, as a member of the Green Party - who are opposed to an unelected second chamber - she has been suggested in a unique manner.

A few years ago all Green Party members received a ballot paper. This asked each of us to vote for who we felt would make the best representative for the party in the upper house. Anyone from the party could have stood and between us we voted Jenny top.

Now we are in the situation of putting theory into practice. Jenny's move means she has a unique angle. She enters the lords and has a real mandate to be there from the party she represents.

For some greens this single act is nothing more than sacrilegious defamation of the Green Party's aim of a wholly elected second chamber. For me though, her taking the role is no more an affirmation of the House of Lord's then Caroline Lucas's win under First Past-the-Post being a green acceptance of the current voting setup.

The challenge for the Green Party is to take this further. To think about how, beyond the membership, it can discover other to elect to fulfil greenparty coverage in the House of Lords. Today doesn't mark the end of green disappointment in the House of Lords, it marks the start of subverting the selection system and opening up of how people get there.

Next is what happens when she gets there. will she vote and speak regularly? will she advocate for progressive politics or will she simply drift away to be an occasional attender and voter? The first act of quiet revolution is to take power - the second is how you use it. will she continue to bring a different approach? Nobody knows, only she is in control of that.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Sermon covering some of the #liesaboutpoverty report

Did you know that you and I may be complicit in allowing a grave injustice to happen and continue to be developed? It’s not a nice thought however, in this mornings sermon, I’d like to explain what the injustice is and how the gospel focus on repentance provides some of the tools to start challenging that injustice!

INfluence - Repentance - Background to the myths

Who influences you in the way you live your life? Maybe they are someone famous or maybe they are someone known personally. What is likely to be the case is that something untouchable has significantly affected your life - your upbringing, both cultural and geographic which will substantially affect the way you view things.

I grew up in Edinburgh and I know that that significantly affected my views on various things. A good example is Geography - for me anyone south of Berwick is ‘the south’, so to hear people refer to someone like yorkshire as ‘the north’ always raises a smile. There are of course some language differences, but I won’t cover those in a pulpit, as well as wider socio economic ones based upon the situation i found myself in.

While interesting - why does this potted biography matter? We are challenged by todays gospel reading to take seriously the need for repentance.  Those in the reading were similar in background to those who had been slaughtered and they were concerned they were also in trouble.  Therefore Jesus response to repent may have sounded odd to our ears.

However, help is at hand in the words of Canon Marcus Borg. He is a leading american theologian and he has spent a long time studying historical, sociological and other meanings behind key phrases in the bible to see what other truths he can reveal. A significant discovery he shares is a simple one - that if we trace the word repentance back to its greek core we find that it means simply “to go beyond the mind we have”.

What? I hear you cry - what does that mean? Think back to the opening question I posed... who influences you and the way you live your live. Then think about your own personal journey of faith and the way that your faith has changed the way you live your life.

Canon Borg explains

““The mind we have is the mind acquired by being socialised in our particlar place and time.....So to go beyond the mind that we have means seeing in a new way - a way shaped by God as known decisively in Jesus... that is repentance.”

Therefore Jesus call to repentance is about one of transformation. This transformation doesn’t just stop with us - it has nation changing consequences.

On Friday this week a slim, but important document was released. Titled ‘ The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’ it was produced to shine a light on the attitudes behind some of the recent welfare reforms and demonstrates how we are all - politicians, media, churchgoer and public, culpable in promoting some dangerous myths that make life for the poorest in our society difficult.

What makes this report so significant are the authors - policy experts from the Baptist, Methodist, United Reformed and Church of SCotland Churches. Therefore they speak from experience, knowledge, a passion for the poorest and an understanding of church contexts:

Let me share the 6 myths - and why they are a myth

Myth 1: ‘They’ are lazy and don’t want to work

The most commonly cited cause of child poverty by churchgoers and the general public alike is that “their parents don’t want to work”. Yet the majority of children in poverty are from working households. 

Myth 2 ‘They’ are addicted to drink and drugs

Churchgoers and the wider public cite addiction as the second most common cause of child poverty. While addiction is devastating for the families and communities touched by it, fewer than 4% of benefit  claimants report any form of addiction. 

MYTH 3 ‘They’ are not really poor – they just don’t manage their money properly

Nearly 60% of the UK population agrees that the poor could cope if only they handled their money properly. The experience of living on a low income is one of constant struggle to manage limited resources, with small events having serious consequences. 

MYTH 4 ‘They’ are on the fiddle

Over 80% of the UK population believe that “large numbers falsely claim benefits”. Benefit fraud has decreased to historically low levels - the kind of levels that the tax system can only dream of. Less than 0.9% of the welfare budget is lost to fraud.

MYTH 5 ‘They’ have an easy life

Over half the British public believes benefi ts are too high and churchgoers tend 
to agree. Government ministers speak of families opting for benefi ts as a lifestyle 
choice. Yet we know that benefits do not meet minimum income standards. They 
have halved in value relative to average incomes over the last 30 years. We know 
the ill and the unemployed are the people least satisfi ed and happy with life. 

MYTH 6 ‘They’ caused the deficit

The proportion of our tax bills spent on welfare has remained stable for the last 20 years. It is ridiculous to argue, as some have, that increasing welfare spending is responsible for 
the current deficit. 

I would love to unpick each and every one of these myths but that would be - if it hasn’t been already - information overload. So I would like to focus on a myth that I know about and really get exhasperated about

“Myth 5 - ‘They’ have an easy life”

When was the last time you claimed benefits? Was it for yourself or for someone else? The last one I claimed was child benefit for my (relatively) newborn son. Before that it was a challenging mix of housing and jobseekers beneft. Challenging - not because I hadn’t paid in enough to the system - but because of the headaches involved in getting all the paperwork correct.

Think back to the last form you filled in - did you find it easy? Maybe it was for a passport or a pension - what do you remember about it?

I remember all the large, heavy, typed legal warnings threatening all sorts of repercussions on anyone who makes a mistake while filling them in. The impleied and real pressure of correct completion is a very real problem. Disability rights activists have highlighted many problems with trying to successfully complete very challenging forms without causing mental health problems for the individual completing it.

Sounds rather abstract really. So let me read, again from the report, a brief case study of a real person:

Alex moved out of his foster carer’s a few years ago. Like many young people his age, he is trying to stand on his own two feet.

In spite of his best efforts, including volunteering and taking courses, Alex has been unable to find work. Alex has dyspraxia and Global Development Delay.

Rather than feeling comfortable within the welfare system, Alex struggles to cope with the weekly panic of having to claim benefits. 

Earlier this year, a reduction in his Disability Living Allowance started a domino effect on his other benefits and he had to move from his one bedroom fl at into a bedsit. “Every two weeks, I panic in case I haven’t done something right on the [Jobseeker’s Allowance] form. 
“It’s horrible. I have a little money, but if they did cut my money for, say, two weeks I wouldn’t know what to do… There’s been a few changes with my money this year, which has been quite worrying. Very worrying, actually. It’s a bit complicated, but because I’m sort of more able to live on my own they cut my Disability [Living Allowance].”

Despite the instability in Alex’s life, he feels that his confidence is growing and says he is more “able to deal with knock-backs.” However, a stable job is still the ultimate goal; not only offering the prospect of a secure income, but the difference between make or-break

That is the reality of our viewpoint. By thinking that claiming benefits is mentally or physically an easy choice or thing to do we all enable people on benefits to become financial whipping boys while the government faces financial truths.

However, the report I read from has a vital reminder - we are to be people of hope and light and that is the note I wish to finish on.


I started this sermon by reflecting on the meaning of the word repentance - about how - like a butterfly from a crysalis - repentance is about breaking free from what bound our view and understanding before and now we can take flight and draw closer to the will of God.

Whenever I think about the will of God i continue to come to messages of peace, justice and love for the poorest in society. That is, as the report says not to glibly accept that ‘the poor will always be with us’ but to view the fact that there is poverty in this world as a sign that we are not yet living in the kingdom of God and so should be seeting about building it today.

6 simple myths are being put about that are enabling the welfare state as we know it to be redrawn, sold off and the poorest in our societies marginalised, brutalised and stigmatised.

Nobody deserves that. We profess that we believe in life in all its fullness - yet until we repent about our silence on this topic - we are enabling people to be opressed by poverty and declining standards of living.

Today’s gospel highlights a continued theme throughout the life of Jesus. He challenged, critized, rebuked and turned tables in churches because they became too focused on themselves and worshiping false idols of money and power. Today’s gospel he turns to those who think ‘it’ll never happen to me / we are better than the galacians’ and says that if  they do not repent the violent end could happen to them.

Therefore my first act of repentance, when I read this report was to email my MP and highlight that they have been sent the report. In my email I acknowledged that I learnt things in the report and would be altering the way I spoke about each of the issues. I knew my life had been changed but I also knew that unless those in power were also challenged to change the injustice will continue.

Our faith, through drawing near with God, can and will change the world. The question is - will we risk doing so - and state that popular truths have no fact behind them - or will we stay quiet because as long as it doesn’t affect me it’ll all be alright.


Monday, February 11, 2013

The #popes predicament - or leadership in the churches

Rarely can news ever be truly surprising. However, unless The Guardian liveblog (among others) was mislead, the announcement today of Pope Benedict's retirement was a genuine surprise.

Pundits, politicians and preachers now flood the airwaves to provide their views and construct a narrative of the pontif's reign. What the talking heads cover is the character of the individual, I'd like to look forward and consider the characteristics of the next Pope.

1) Ecumenical in outlook

The current pope, from a UK perspective, played a key role in either seeing off or accelerating divisions within the Church of England by enabling the creation of the Ordinariate. While it may have taken the heat out of an element of the CofE's internal theological politics, from the outside it seemed like some nifty poaching. The Catholic Church, alongside all churches in Europe, are forced to consider their place in a truly multicultural Europe. The new pope should be willing to facilitate further talks and public activities to demonstrate to the world key points of unity among Christians.

B) Global in Outlook - Recent popes have come from Europe. Statistics show mass growth in faith among people outside of Europe. Therefore maybe it's time for someone from outside of the churches traditional geographical power base to come forward and reflect new global patterns of worship and growth.

C) focused on young people - the Catholic Church institutional has a challenging history when it comes to young people. What is less well covered are the global young people's days that fill stadia with thousands of young Catholics for prayer and worship. If the pope is to nudge the church from a difficult past to a positive future then they must take clear action to tackle abuse while also ensuring today's young people are invested in and recognised in.

D) a communicating pope - leadership within the church is a difficult situation. From the experiences of the current pope it is also clear that fresh faces can be difficult to bring forward. It would be fascinating to see, in an age of social media where spokespeople are more fluid, flexible and fast moving what attitudes to communication the new pope brings.

E) a liberating pope - finally it would be excellent to see a pope whose faith developed through struggle. The catholic faith is at its clearest when speaking out on issues of social justice. This can only come to life through lived experience and listening to the experiences of others. As both head of a faith group and head of state, he will be in a near unique position to bring to the poorest and most powerful a message of liberation.

( The one big issue I haven't covered is the role of multifaith because I haven't seen how it has been done previously )

The new pope will have a physical and virtual inbox overflowing with issues. I'll be interested to see what characteristics they bring and what issues they truly take to heart.

Fascinating times ...