Grace is at the heart of Christian faith

Some words from Justin Welby

“The longer you go on, the more I realise the infinite and amazing and wonderful diversity of human beings and what they do. Grace is at the heart of Christian faith and not law. The church isn’t principally about rules. It’s about a relationship with Jesus Christ, and he shapes people’s behaviour. The street pastors, helping people at 3am on a Saturday morning who are drunk out of their minds, are not going to give them a lecture about drink. They’re just going to help them to get home. The church is not a place where good people go. It’s a place where bad people go to meet God. It’s a refuge for sinners.”

Close to home

Today, amongst other things, I had a conversation with a charity which has been producing some very professional video to promote its cause. These videos are produced centrally as generic promotions – by their head office somewhere.   This made me think that organisations that keep a tight reign on their corporate message, produce media centrally and filter messages through communications departments can sometimes be a real handicap to effective connection.  

In many cases people want to connect with people who share their particular circumstances and share their view of the world – and that can be very localised. They want to know that the person with whom they are connecting shares their experience and is walking side by side with them.  Centralising communication and taking it further away from the local context can lead to a feeling of disconnectedness.  For this reason I have been thinking a about how we can make local voices heard and reduce the tendency for filtering out those people who are close to where the need is – the people we really should be listening to.  

This picture is from an early walk in Middleton Woods today. The Bluebells are starting to come out and the young leaves are breaking out. This is a great time of year. 

Ilkley upper tarn at the end of the day

Another lovely day in Ilkley. Mostly spent talking, first with friends at chance encounters in town and some semi business conversations. Lunch with son Joshua and then a visit to my mother who’s on her own while dad’s in hospital.

My dad is having difficulty with his leg which he damaged 60 years ago when he was racing in the Isle of Man TT races. He was quite a big shot in motor cycle racing then and told me that when he had his dramatic accident (which he was lucky to survive), six people alone had died in practice sessions. “Racers where a different breed then” he told me. Now apparently it’s more down to the design of the bikes than the skill of the riders, but I can’t really comment.

Now at the end of the daylight hours a walk with the dog on Ilkley Moor.

Sunny Friday

Lovely sunny morning here in Ilkley, dog gets an earlier than usual walk. The Cow and Calf rocks are so familiar, you see pictures of them everywhere, but there’s always something new to see. Such a wonderful time of the year.

Golden Hour

I have an App on my phone which alerts me to the golden hour. The golden hour is that period that starts just before sunset when the light becomes particularly delicious. This hour is prime time for walking the dog down by the river. This is the old bridge in Ilkley.

What makes a community? Greatwood consultation film.

This week I’m coming to the end of filming on the Greatwood estate near Skipton.  The film has been commissioned by Yorkshire Housing to dig into life on the estate and what sort of community it is.  The video below is only a mood sample showing images of the estate, but we will include many interviews.

I won’t go into detail here just yet, but the overriding observation is that places and communities are rarely what they seem to be from the outside.  You can paint a picture but you have to live in a place to really know what it’s like.

There are some wonderful people on the estate and a school with a brilliant reputation. Greatwood, though, has its share of problems but I think this film will show that communities need to provide opportunities for people to come together for a common purpose.  Communication and community are intertwined concepts and without an environment where people can talk together we will be very much impoverished.

Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.

This is a reflection on how we communicate using social and other media. I have said some things I have regretted on social media in the past, but I’m learning slowly. Vigorous debate on-line is a wonderful thing and to be encouraged. It would be a shame if the mistakes we occasionally make can’t be accommodated by those taking part. Respect for readers and forgiveness for writers is essential if we are to make progress in understanding and build relationships. Without the capacity to be honest and take risks we will be seriously held back.

Each way of communicating requires rules and boundaries which are commonly understood. The way we read, say, a political drama on BBC ONE is very different from the way we interpret the Ten O’clock News which immediately follows it. A harrowing scene in Silent Witness is entertainment, violence shown the news is shocking. Communication requires a relationship in which the language is commonly understood.

The internet hosts many different ways of communicating and social media itself can be broken down into different forms. Even within one form of communication the expectations can be varied, take for example email. Is an email conversation or a formal letter? Can an email be a formal letter in paragraph one and a light hearted chat in paragraph two? How do we know whether a person is joking or is being serious? It seems to me that very few people use email as effectively as they could.

Social media is a minefield of misunderstandings and misinterpretations, and social media is both ephemeral and permanent. A throw away comment on social media intended to be quickly forgotten amid small talk can be permanently etched into the history. When we say something as a poke to get a conversation going we sometimes say things we would like to retract and say sorry for, “I didn’t really mean that, I was playing devils advocate, what I really think is….. “ And if you know the person, forgiveness is quick and easy, but if they are strangers the damage can escalate.

Good communication is founded on good relationships and good relationships can be forged out of good communication. Where strangers are communicating for the first time extreme care is required to establish the rules and boundaries of the conversation. It is dangerous make an assumption that the recipient will discern whether you are being deadly serious or light hearted.

So what should our response to on-line communication be and how should we behave?  I think that the responsibility is as much on the reader as the writer.

For the writer of a public message I think great care should be taken to explain the motivation for the communication and why they choose the words they do. When writing in a public forum we should take the publication as seriously as writing for print or broadcast. This may be an unrealistic expectation but a deep breath should be taken at the very least.

For the reader I think we must make allowances for the spontaneous outbursts some people make. Of course we all say things we regret and we often change our minds, so let’s, be charitable. If we see something we don’t like on social media the worst thing you can do, in my opinion, is respond in anger. Better to be cool and let the facts do the work.

The most powerful communication is that in which the facts speak for themselves and the story is true. The poorest communication is where the emotion masks the real message. At its worst emotion is used in the absence of an argument or defensively. I love humour contained in a fact of a story but I think as soon as the writer uses their own emotional state to get one over on another person they are on a sticky wicket.

So there we have it. I’ve said a few things that I may want to change my mind about, but it’s just a conversation, I’m sure you understand.

Talking down to God – thoughts about “the poor”

Beginning on the 6th April the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and Cardinal Nichols the leader of the Catholics in the UK begin a series of prayers and reflection in support of social action among the poor. I was asked to film one of the reflections presented by theologian Paula Gooder which will be introduced on the 11th of April. We did the filming at Scargill House near Kettlewell in Yorkshire.

Listen to God, Hear the Poor is the title of the series and it has been an inspiration to me before it has started. The Archbishop’s determination to address issues of poverty in this country is very encouraging. Read a speech he delivered here

So this Easter my own reflections will be anchored in this series, Listen to God, Hear the Poor. For any church members who use twitter there is an opportunity to highlight social action using the hashtag #listentogod

Here I want to reflect on my own perspective on the poor which has changed in the last few years.

As Christians we count ourselves as children of God, made in his image. When we look into the eyes of another person we may say that here is the face of Jesus. Difficult to comprehend isn’t it? How can it be that we human beings with all our imperfections and annoying ways can be identified with God? Let’s think about this question of identity. When we talk about “the poor” what’s going on in our heads? What do we see when we encounter “those people” we see as the poor?

My understanding of theology is so small that it is beyond me to offer an intelligent explanation, but I have studied ideas about identity where it concerns products and marketing. I know, for example, that the brand identity of a product is closely mapped to how we see ourselves as people. What kind of car you drive can be part if your identity as can the clothes you wear, the drinks consume and so on. Marketing agencies are brilliant at understanding human identity and managing the connections we make between what we consume and who we are. There are strong links between wealth and identity.

If you dig into this question of identity as formed through product consumption you begin to realise how manipulative and divisive it can be. Big business can not only respond to markets but they can create markets by using celebrities, tv programmes, and popular press to help people form an identity for themselves based on lifestyles built around products. So called impartial and objective broadcasters easily bolster these manufactured identities.

An even more worrying aspect is that people’s consumption is encouraged to be competitive and aspirational. “the car in front is a Toyota” , “because you’re worth it”, for example. Through our lives we are encouraged to see ourselves as constantly in need of improvement through the consumption of ever more expensive and sophisticated products which enable us to be better than someone else.

The employment of status and standing (high or low) is prevalent. Status is a powerful motivator linked to income, consumption and hierarchies of power. I have been lucky (if I can say lucky) to have worked in an industry which uses people’s status as raw material for the production of engaging television. Whenever I met or worked with a famous person I never lost that giddy child like excitement of being in their company. As broadcasters we present people as branded products – labeled and packaged. The banker, the politician, the poor person, the immigrant. Each person’s identity is formed out of a mix of stereotypes, visual clues, popular shorthand, the products they associate with.

TV shows thrive on presenting people as either success stories or the victims of misfortune, the winners or the losers.

As a TV producer at the BBC I had status. One of the first questions I got asked when I walked into the office at Television Centre was. “did you go to Oxford or Cambridge?”, seriously. Friends were always interested in who I had met or what I knew about people of status.

The Church of England (admire it as I do), is a place where I encounter a high degree of status awareness. People of influence connected with government, the BBC or the Royal Family easily become the focus of attention. On the other side of the coin, people of low standing are also given a lot of attention but for different reasons. It is very easy for (us) to see people who have fallen on hard times as deserving causes and for (us) to assume a position of rescuer. The feelings we get when doing good can easily feed this almost universal tendency to need status. The poor, when we discuss them in a Christian environment, always seem to be “out there” somewhere, or the kind of people who pop up on our doorstep. Need is something that people in a foreign country suffer from and it’s our job to go there as missionaries and sort them out. I’m making a sweeping statement but you know what I mean.

When I left ITV and joined the community development charity Oblong Leeds Ltd I found it hard to adjust to an environment where I no longer had power over those I was serving – where equality was practical. The life of Woodhouse Community Centre is built around groups of volunteers formed into collectives who make decisions together. There is no CEO or manager as such. It may be that there are hidden power structures but the experience has been humbling, cleaning the toilets beneath no-one. The words “the poor” or “disadvantaged” are hardly ever used, we don’t seem to use terms that bundle people into categories. We are focused on an individual’s needs – a person looking for work, a person who needs help managing their money, a person who is struggling with their mental health. The important thing is that we are sitting down together at the same table sharing meals and getting to know each other as individuals.

So what’s my point? I think we can only really serve people when we get to know each other as equals. We should guard against the inevitable appeal of status? We should not sucumb to the impulse to put ourselves above others? Beware of the emotional draw of doing good.

If God is in our neighbourhood, if Christ is visible in those we encounter, then we must be mindful of those people we are inclined to talk down to. Sitting down at the table with stranger is a good place to be but it will involve sacrifice and humility.

Let’s be careful about the attitude we adopt and the language we use, lest we talk down to God himself.