The bishop’s wobbly bridge

This little wobbly bridge is in the garden of the Bishop of Leeds. I like to think it is where he practices keeping a balance in particularly precarious situations. This idyllic garden made me think about how we see the world and where beauty is to be found – especially since I spend much of my time visiting highly deprived areas.

Even in the darkest of places there can be hope, I really believe that.  It’s difficult to say that when there is so much brutality in the world.  Life seems relentlessly unfair to many of the most vulnerable people, and over time individuals and whole communities can become collectively resentful of life, the universe and everything. Why me? Why us? What’s going on?

I find myself making crass suggestions like, “think positively and things might work out better”, or “count your blessings”.  These kind of responses to awful situations can be highly patronising and show a lack of empathy with those who are genuinely suffering.  So how can we see desperate situations in a more positive and constructive way?

The platitudes we come up with are not helpful because they mask reality and create an impression that things are not as bad as we might think. Likewise the kind of spin we see in politics heavily manipulates how we see the world and what we think is going on. What we think, feel and believe about the world is really very important because it is on this basis that we make decisions about how we live and work together – the Brexit decision may possibly illustrate this.  

The first challenge is to be as honest as we possibly can be about what is actually happening; what is real.  If the boat is about to sink then face up to it; If there is a troll under the bridge don’t just whistle and close your eyes; if we are about to perish then let’s do so with our eyes wide open. But conversely if there is genuine beauty to behold, then let’s behold it.  If we close our eyes tightly in the darkness we might miss the light that is there to guide us to safety.

Now, more than ever, there is a role for the sense makers – the artists and poets, the media, the story tellers, musicians, preachers and theologians who can reveal truth and help us to find the light.  We really need to train our eyes to see what might be the positive opportunities hidden in difficult situations and to recognise redeeming beauty.  I would say seeing  through the eyes of the imagination informed by truth.

So what am I concluding?  Well, maybe it’s that when things are difficult it’s best not to retreat from reality – if we open our eyes wide enough we may also see a special kind of beauty which coexists with suffering. This is a particular challenge for some in the church who seek comfort and see the world as they would like it to be rather than as it is.  The church can’t be a cosy refuge for like-minded people but better I think when it is an uncomfortable mix of unlike-mined people. Therein we will find hope and beauty.

I rather like the image of the church as a wobbly bridge.



Go out into the world and make disciples (of yourselves). A strategy for church growth.

I  want to talk to you about church growth.

If you spend all your time getting the house ready for the party but don’t invite any guests there will be no party. If you pin your hopes on the idea that people will turn up simply by baking a cake and putting up balloons you will be disappointed.

I want to make a case for the critical importance of going out into the world and getting to know people with kindness and mercy; and I want to suggest that so called social engagement is not about rescuing people but about rescuing ourselves.

Robin Gamble, my dear friend in the Diocese of Leeds, has said to me that if we don’t make disciples and see growing congregations then there will be no one to do good works in the community.  I agree with this if we see social engagement as a service we provide or a useful way of keeping our buildings open during the week. This is not how I see it.

Social engagement to me is a direct response to God’s call for us to go out into the world; It is the kind of engagement that is modelled on Christ’s own coming into the world. Jesus became vulnerable and allowed himself to be transformed by those he was brought up with, imperfect as they were. He came to bring eternal life but was also open to being transformed as a human being, to grow in relationship with those around him.

We are not service providers or rescuers. The image of the church as a lifeboat on the choppy seas of life ready to pull unfortunate souls out of the water is not so helpful in my view.  I don’t see myself as a hero who goes out to rescue others – that seems to me a popular fantasy that is formed out of insecurity. Of course I want people to be saved and to be involved – but not get a medal for it.

I think we are being asked to acknowledge our frailty and yet go towards danger in order to save ourselves. The very people we look down on and call lost are the ones on whom our salvation and transformation relies.  It is as if we are being asked to become the people we objectify as “the poor”.

So what does this mean when we form our plans and strategies for church growth?

I can’t see that we will ever grow the church unless we build bridges of friendship and kindness into the communities in which we live. I don’t think the church will be transformed by a top down corporate strategy or marketing campaigns – helpful though they may be. The church’s presence in our communities is expressed though many small sparks of light which are carried in the hearts of people in the day to day. Those sparks of light are not just carried by people we call committed Christians or church members; God is in every one of the people we encounter.

What we can do as a church is help people recognise that light and see the world differently, but we can only do that if we find ways of building genuine loving relationships with people unlike ourselves. These relationships will be forged by establishing places of welcome, looking after our Muslim neighbour, feeding our children, tackling homelessness, freeing the modern day slaves and so on.

Church growth has to come from somewhere,  it is not going to happen if we simply put up balloons and rehearse our party tricks.  Church growth will come through a gathering of new and unusual friends that we have come to know though social engagement. Transforming lives and communities together.

Let Justice flow like Rivers – June 21st

There is just over a week to go before this conference put together by Welfare Reform Impact Bradford and Wellsprings Together Bradford. The event will take place on Thursday 21st June at the Thornbury Centre, Leeds Old Road, BD3 8JX from 2:00 until 4:00 pm.

You can discover some of the faith based social action which is taking place to help those who are disadvantaged. The conference welcomes Revd. Chris Howson as speaker. Chris has a passion for urging faith groups to engage with social action issues and is well known in Bradford. He doing similar work as City Centre and University chaplain in Sunderland. This is an opportunity to benefit from his experience.

Please come along and invite anyone you know who may be interested. More information can be found on the Diocese of Leeds Learning Platform.

Drop a note to Richard Paley to say you’d like to come

Let Justice flow like Rivers


What does integration mean in Bradford?

Picture by Kaneez Khan

I’ve come from and interesting gathering in Bradford to talk about the government’s integration strategy. The group was made up of muslim women, people representing refugee communities, disability groups, council leaders – in fact an impressively diverse range of people representing Bradford communities. These are my unedited notes.

The first question to the group what about what we mean by integration. The first answer was tolerance of other beliefs. Bradford is certainly a pace of many faiths. Integration was felt to be an observable fact for many people at local level where faith groups already work together – but it must be said that the groups represented at the meeting were biased towards integration through their work.

Financial pressure and council cuts are causing a lot of anxiety and some thought that this made people resentful and likely to look for scapegoats – leading to some racism.

The government definition of integration was thought to be idealistic. These are high ideals but people are being left to deal with very basic, ordinary problems.

“Understanding difference and discovering similarities” is a two way process.

When we talk about integration we first think about racial integration, but we need a broader view of what integration means. There are issues to do with the age, gender and wealth which separate people. Geographical segregation is a serious problem inhibiting the movement and aspirations of people.

There are 25,000 people on Bradford who speak poor English. 62% of those are women and 38% men.

A consequence of poor integration is the impact on people’s confidence and aspirations. People need to feel that they have an opportunity to do what they want to do and go where they want to go. We don’t want to dictate that people will integrate but we must give people access to opportunities which are not constrained by status, faith culture or financial means. There are gated communities, for example in Ilkley – so what can we do to enable a broader territory for integration? Can we make moving around the district a viable choice?

Trust is an important value. Many people in our communities have low levels of trust towards the police and authorities. Local organisation that can build trust within the communities can provide valuable pathways towards new opportunities.

Some of the barriers towards integration include, cuts in services, language abilities, employment opportunities, prejudice fuelled by the media. There are links between education, employment and opportunity.

Public events like sport provide a valuable opportunity to bring people together.

Many people said that there was low awareness of what opportunities and services exists. Even though Bradford does better than most, effective communication and information sharing remains a challenge.

Working with children and young people appears to be a key area of work if long and lasting integration can be achieved. The Schools Linking Network brings children of different backgrounds together.

Many small project like Shine in West Bowling provide an opportunity for people to come together but also an opportunity for service providers to drop in.

We discussed the subject of leadership and in particular among women. There were an number of Muslim women present who spoke well. I did feel that while the men in the group were not intentionally dominating, the women did have to find some courage to speak.

There are strong family influences which can inhibit or liberate young people to integrate. There is a need to challenge the attitudes of some men.

To measure integration efforts we might look for improved employment rates, learning new skills, language proficiency.

Blue, green and gold.

It’s not often the sun shines on a bank holiday weekend. Ilkley was as busy as ever today with crowds flocking to the riverside carnival. The woods were quiet which was surprising as the Bluebells are at their best.

Taking pictures of Bluebells is quite tricky. Often the blue is wrong or they are so small in the picture it’s hard to see them. The colours change through the day with the softening afternoon sun making them a richer shade of blue.

Saltaire Arts Trail and creative legacy of the Bradford mills

Today we went to the Saltaire Arts Trail. The arts trail is wonderful and captures the spirit of creativity and craft skills on which the city of Bradford was built. The houses are opened up as art galleries and organised as a trail. This event is deeply associated with the identity and history of Saltaire.

If you don’t know, Saltaire is in Bradford West Yorkshire and was a village built in the mid 1800s by Titus Salt. Around the mill he constructed housing for the mill workers along with a school, chapel and hospital. Salt took care of the needs of hundreds of workers and managers who were dedicated to the manufacture of textiles –  including a worker and poet named James Waddington. Titus Salt imposed strict moral standard in his domain including the prohibition of alcohol.

I really can’t imagine what life was like being so dependent on the vision and benevolence of a single mill owner but it does seem to follow a pattern of paternalistic landowners and industrialists who generated their wealth by owning the lives of the working class.

Up the road at Samuel Cunliffe-Lister’s mill there was a different approach. He was one of the richest people in England but had a reputation for treating his workforce poorly. Through a period of unrest at Lister’s mill the roots of the trades unions and labour party began to form – quite a legacy! My entire family history is tied up with this industry. My mother’s side is linked to the Lister empire and my dad’s dad was co-owner at Dean Clough mill in Halifax.  My great, great grandfather is on the far right of this photo, John Dean Waddington.



The Tour de Yorkshire an act of welcome and participation

I was talking yesterday about a home being a place of memories and belonging. Here in my home town of Ilkley, memories were made today as people gathered for the Tour de Yorkshire. Cycling has become a growth enterprise in Yorkshire and the success of events like these are are helping many small communities feel good about themselves.

I hope the route of the Tour de Yorkshire can be varied in future to bring in some of our communities that have lower levels of wealth and commercial appeal.  Perhaps the event could run through a council estate or an urban area in need of cheering up?

The value Welcome to Yorkshire has brought through the success of the Tour de France is hugh and it’s not primarily about cycling but about the pride people have in where they live and the excitement generated through shared celebrations. People enjoy being welcoming and the pride they have in the quality of that welcome is not hidden or modest but exuberant and joyful.

This will be a positive memory which will live on and be recalled through photographs and videos. Just as important will be the legacy of new relationships formed as people come together and participate in all sorts of different ways.

Stonegate Listening

I am sitting in the beautiful little church of Stonegate in the heart of historic York. I don’t have a camera with me so you will just have to imagine. Ancient architecture darkened with time but enriched with a sense of history. Outside there is a busker sininging ave maria operatic style. It is a creative place where memories unfold into the present day multi dimensional culture.

My meeting at York University ended about thirty minutes ago. We have been talking about how we serve people at the most deprived end of the UK’s social scale, specifically the homeless.

The aim of the conversation was to determine what kind of change steps are needed to ensure those vulnerable to homelessness find a pathway offering hope. Financial security, food, shelter, safe spaces are the basics but what then?

We discussed the concept of “home” and whether this needs to be a much richer concept than simply having a place to go or a family to belong. We imagine home as a place where memories are made and celebrations are held. The walls of a home, like this church in Stonegate, tell the family story which is constantly being retold and enriched. When you find yourself at home your history and culture will change the fabric of the place and new layers of memory laid down.

Going from being homeless to being at home is a profound thing.  We felt that deep listening was a good place to start – without the ability to listen. individually and as a society, we will all be poor. When we listen we are doing so in order to allow others to be heard. We are saying let’s appreciate who you are, we want you to be part of us – and more than that we want to be changed by you.

Place and Memory

I love the mood of the late afternoon when there’s no-one around. Everyone has gone home and the light is fading. It becomes a private space for slowing down and taking notice of the smallest detail. The pool of light in the sky and the soft shadows in the snow, the gently muted colours.

There are two spaces for contemplation – the place and the memory. What I actually I saw and felt at the time and the later recollection. This image helps me re-connect with that experience; it is not perfect or transferable (you will see something different), but in time it will become more precious as the time and place become more distant.

Top woods close to the moor

Removing the filters

There’s been a lot written about seeing. On the face of it the act of seeing seems quite straight forward, but the state of mind that allows us to actually notice what’s in front of us is the point of interest.

The discipline of Contemplative Photography draws on the idea that we can see both conceptually and perceptually.  The conceptual mind sees categories of things and is preoccupied with ideas, while the perceptual way of seeing is to register what is actually in front of us.

To be perceptive is to suspend our preconceived ideas about what we might see, what we want to see, or any kind of  thing that has a label or tricks us;  We are not looking for someting.

How does this idea relate to the prejudices we have? Can we suspend our conditioned way of looking at things? Imagine if the filters can be removed and we begin to really see?