Thursday, October 29, 2020

On demonisation


When our children were small, Jo took several years out from paid employment. During this time, I also spent two years at theological college. Being a low-income family, we received Healthy Start vouchers, that could be exchanged at supermarkets for fruit and vegetables, milk (including follow-on formula milk), and certain other items. Of course, that might ‘free up’ money to spend on treats, for our children, or for ourselves, such as a bottle of wine at the end of the week.

The tragedy exposed yet again this half-term is not a civil discussion on the relative roles of the state, parents, and, in between these two, the wider community, in the raising of children—all three have a role to play; and there are various ways we might imagine how they interconnect, or what each might best deliver—but the way in which we normalise one ‘class’ of people and demonise another. Our words, spoken and unspoken, reveal who we believe define what it means to be human, and who we believe to be sub-human.

Because we are a middle-class family, when our children were young, Jo might have been described as a homemaker, and I as (re)training: two laudable choices. Were we working class, the same choices might be described by some as deliberately choosing to make ourselves a low income family despite having the temerity to have had three children before I had the decency to be sterilised.

Of course, those living in poverty are not the only ones who are demonised. Politicians are also regularly demonised in how we speak of them, and this is both party-specific and as a generalised mass. Over recent years, populism has deliberately stirred this up; and those who would reject populism must reject its play book. And then there is the dangerous assumption of normativity by a Left-leaning middle class, that not only demonises the political Right (of aristocracy and disenfranchised left-behind communities) but also places themselves above question, both morally (no-one else cares as much as we do) and strategically (no-one else is as wise as we are).

Often, when we meet demonised people in the Gospels (including children), others have tried to contain/constrain or fix or ignore them, inevitably without success. No-one responds well to such moves. Jesus listens, enters into conversations, seeks to find a way forward, in which persons experience dignity, compassion, challenge to formulate next steps (which might not be their first choice); and communities experience the disruptions of both measurable, painful economic cost and social restoration. And this is to say nothing of those we meet in the Gospels who were not described as demonised, but might be today: the way the scribes and pharisees normalised their own group, and demonised the prostitutes and tax collectors.

Again and again, 2020 has pushed us to broaden our definition of human beyond our own tribe; and again and again, we have tried to respond within our existing, deeply defensive, frameworks. Those frameworks are not fit for purpose. At the end of the day, we de-humanise, we demonise, ourselves, in demonising others. The deliverance we need, and sometimes even long for, will not come from ourselves.

None of this is to say that we should not pour out our anger at injustice, our bewilderment at hard-heartedness, our cognitive dissonance, before a God who may appear indifferent. The biblical term for this very thing is lament. It is just that when we do so with integrity, we might hear back more than we bargained for.


Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Rethink Reskill Reboot


Yesterday, we watched the first in the latest series of Who Do You Think You Are? (actor Jodie Whittaker), in which people in the public eye discover the stories behind their family tree. This often involves the de-bunking of family stories, passed down the generations in Chinese whispers or arising from adding 2+2 and getting 5. Also, the processing of new information, a dismantling and the construction of a new (though equally partial) meaningful story.

Yesterday, I also took part in the funeral of a man who had started out working for the Gas Board, later retrained as a teacher, and had an active retirement.

Also in the ether, much chatter around the inevitable pressure of (Austerity and Brexit and) Covid 19 to require some people to retrain—some unhappily so; others, as welcome opportunity—along with questions as to which forms of work are valued by society, and which are not.

And it causes me to wonder, what, if anything, happens when our vocation is co-opted by others for their construction of meaning?

This coming Sunday is the Feast of St Luke, who wrote the Gospel According to Luke (a biography of Jesus) and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles (a biography of the early Church). From early on, Luke is identified as a physician, essentially on the basis that in one of his letters Paul refers to Luke the physician. It is often noted that he has a particular interest in healing miracles, but there is no real evidence to support this confirmation bias. What if Paul writes ‘the physician’ to distinguish one Luke from another, from the better-known man of the same name?

Luke the author inserts himself as a character in three distinct sections of the second half of Acts, switching from third-person to first-person narration.

The first recounts a sea journey from Troas to Samothrace, Neapolis, and Philippi.

The second is concerned with a sea journey from Philippi to Troas, Assos, Mitylene, opposite Chios, Samos, Miletus, Cos, Rhodes, Patara, (off Cyprus), Tyre, Ptolemais, Caesarea, and on inland to Jerusalem.

The third describes in great detail a sea journey from Caesarea to Sidon, (off Cyprus), Myra, off Cnidus, off Salmone, Fair Havens near Lasea, past Crete, off Cauda, and ending in shipwreck at Malta…

…and, three months later, in a second attempt to get to their original intended end point of Rome, a fourth sea journey from Malta to Syracuse, Rhegium, Puteoli, and on by land to Rome.

It is clear that Luke, who appears in the account whenever a sea journey takes place, is not only an eye-witness but an expert witness, a sailor who understands ships and the Mediterranean.

But Luke the merchant seaman, who served the Church in somehow facilitating Paul’s missionary journeys—and who perhaps turned his back on the sea to become a biographer—is later retrained to be Luke the posthumous physician, patron saint of physicians. Rethought. Reskilled. Rebooted.

Was the Church in need of a patron saint of physicians? And, today, are we in need of a new meaningful story, of exploration around the coast, the liminal edges of chaos (the great Sea) and shelter (the harbour)? Of surviving being lost at sea, and shipwrecked?

Or, for those working on the frontline of the NHS at present, a physician-seaman, a ship’s doctor?

What, if anything, happens when our vocation is co-opted by others for their construction of meaning?


Thursday, October 08, 2020

A friend in need, part 2


Jesus’ parable of the three friends (Luke 11:5-13) challenges us in our view of friendship, and invites us into a fresh understanding. At its heart, the parable in search of evidence of friendship is laid before us to address the question of God’s covenant friendship. What is the evidence of God’s covenant friendship? He gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask.

This Holy Spirit is associated with wisdom, love, and power; with companionship, comfort, and courage; with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

To return to the dynamic at play in the parable: I come to you, having reached the end of my wisdom, my love having worn thin, my courage run out. This is not hypothetical; I am, among other things, the father of two (out of three) children on the Autism Spectrum; like all children (and even more so) they don’t come with a manual (though, God knows, plenty of books have been written offering advice).

You, however, are fresh out of wisdom, love, and courage, at this moment in time. Which is no slight against you, for, we’ve all been there, right? So, you turn to another friend, God, in prayer and say, “My friend, Andrew, needs some wisdom right now, and I haven’t any to offer, in evidence of my friendship. Could you lend me some? Indeed, could you lend me three loaves’ worth, so that you, Lord, and he and I can eat together?” (literal companionship is the sharing of bread with another.)

That’s how it works, my friend.


A friend in need, part 1


In the Gospel passage set for Holy Communion today, Luke 11:5-13, Jesus tells a story about friends, that is to say, about people who claim a particular devotion and affection in their association with one another, as opposed to mere acquaintances. Friend C arrives at Friend A’s door in the middle of the night, and Friend A has nothing to set before them, or, no evidence to produce in support of the assertion that C is indeed their friend. And so, Friend A goes to Friend B, requesting the loan of three loaves. In other words, Friend A asks Friend B for evidence that A is indeed their friend, evidenced by redistributing their surplus, the loaves they have left over at the end of the day.

There is much chatter in these days of the indominable spirit of the English people, of their deep love for their country and their community. There is also much chatter concerning the viability of certain forms of work, what can be supported or bailed out and what cannot.

Cards on the table, my work role is not viable. Not, it brings in billions but has not been recognised; but, at least in economic terms, it is not viable. Yet, I believe that what I do adds real value to society, some of which is measurable and some of which is immeasurable. And this is true of other forms of work (not to mention children and pensioners, neither group being viable, though at least children grow out of it, and pensioners, die out of it).

The question is, this talk of friendship, that is implicit in how we want to perceive ourselves, where is the evidence? In the terms of this parable—and yes, it is only a story, but a story that might provoke us—where is the redistribution?

One of the things I believe the pandemic has highlighted is the need to adopt a universal basic income or citizens’ income. This is not an extreme form of socialism, let alone communism. If (UK context) you have ever been in receipt of married couples allowance, child benefit, working tax credits, if you have ever been in receipt of a state pension, you will have experienced the partial redistribution of personal resources through taxation. A basic income, ensuring the essential needs of every child and adult, is evidence of a fair society, of genuine friendship.

A Conservative government won’t go for it, because they believe in meritocracy, or, that you get what you deserve: if you have little, it is because you deserve little; if you have much, it is because you deserve much. A Labour government won’t go for it, because the universal nature is essential to the idea, and they don’t believe in giving even a tiny percentage of the common purse to the super rich. Neither of these positions, in themselves, are reasons not to keep raising the matter.

May God give us the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of wisdom and love, of friendship and boldness.


Tuesday, October 06, 2020



There’s a story in the Gospels of a woman whose severe gynaecological bleeding (or possibly haemophilia) has kept her isolated from community for twelve years. She is ritually unclean, which is to say, removed from society, with anyone who touches her also having to remove themselves from society for a short while.

This ritual removal was part of the regular rhythm and flow of her culture. Women would remove themselves in the monthly cycle of their period. Ritual uncleanliness is not sinfulness, or moral failure, and ritual cleansing is not sin management or the management of the Other; but, rather, to participate in ritual uncleanliness and ritual cleansing is to enter into the pattern of death and new life, to be an actor in deep mystery. Every one of us, regardless of sex, age, or culture, regardless even of introvert or extravert preference, needs regular times of withdrawal from and restoration within society. But for this woman in this story, the withdrawal had been extended out indefinitely.

We know that she has spent all of her resources on physicians who were unable to cure her. We know, therefore, that she has felt human touch, and under the most vulnerable of conditions. But it is quite possible that she had gone for months at a time between experiencing human touch, for years. We do not know, but it is possible that she had family members who, in order to provide such touch, essentially self-isolated in order to shield her; even so, she is removed from her neighbours. Given that we know she had spent all her resources on the hope of a cure, and that she was still alive, we may imagine that one or more of those neighbours left food on her doorstep, in a spatially distanced compromise they had to make work.

All of this seems meaningful, in 2020.

This woman hears that Jesus has arrived in town, and resolves that if she can push through the crowd, unnoticed, and only touch the hem of his garment, she might hope to experience the healing she needs, the kind of healing she has heard that others have received from him. And so, she takes the risk. She, surely, makes others ritually unclean by her contact. She reaches out for Jesus. And straight away, he is aware that power has left him. And straight away, she is aware that she is healed. And Jesus responds in such a way that everyone, who have just been made ritually unclean, is ritually cleansed. The whole community goes through death and new life (which is really interesting, because Jesus is in fact, at this very moment, on his way to raise the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue from death).

How do we go about our lives under the tension of needing to interact with people who are mutually exposing one another—and by extension others who have not chosen so to meet—to risk?

How do we live with the very real emotional and psychological impact of the extended loss of human touch—and the added impact on those who are removed from the possibility of touch, but nonetheless must look on as others break the rules?

How do we nurture empathy and compassion for those most affected by isolation, over extended time that erodes our empathy and compassion?

Where might Jesus, and the community gathered around him, feature in our thinking?

How might the story of this woman help us?


Saturday, October 03, 2020

Comfort and Joy


2020 has been a hard year. The Church of England’s theme for this Christmas is Comfort and Joy, recognising that this year Christmas will be, for many, a strange mix of the numbness of loss and the longing for that celebration of love that strengthens our bones in midwinter. Jo and I would like to share some Comfort and Joy by giving every home in our parish a bespoke bauble, to create a community-wide Christmas tree, in our homes and also hopefully curated online. As we look to bless our neighbours, we have asked a local business to make the 7,000 baubles for us, and they look great.

Here’s how you can help.

[1] Could you donate to our Just Giving page, to help us cover the cost? The link is

There will be some additional costs (printing of an explanatory flyer; possibly ribbon) but our target of £1,750 relates to 7,000 laser-cut baubles at 25p each.

[2] Do you have any ribbon you don’t need and could give to the project? It needs to be 15-20cm lengths, between 3mm-(max.)10mm wide.

We know that many of you might have some ribbon saved for a project you’ve never got around to, or even the hanging loops from a dress or top. Here is another way to get involved. We need 7,000 strips in all, but every contribution helps, however small. Any colour will do, especially if Christmassy. If you are further afield, you could post them to us—message me for our postal address on andrew [at] dowsetts [dot] net if you need it—and if you are local, you might even be willing to thread some of the baubles for us?

[3] Local friends, would you be able to help deliver baubles door to door, later in the year? Let us know!