Are we losing a direct connection with the world around us?

There is a downside to this age of media. It is a drawback that leaves people and communities poorer in many ways.

A medium exists in order to make a connection that would otherwise not be possible. A road between two places or the ability to speak to someone many miles away. The internet enables connection in ways we could barely have dreamt of 50 years ago.

A medium replaces something. A phone conversation replaces the need to be physically present with the person, a book replaces the need to listen to the voice of the storyteller, the storyteller replaces the need to go through the experience for ourselves.

These media help to open up our view of the world in ways that are vastly enriching. When we watch David Attenborough’s Life on Earth, the narrative and photography take us to the most extraordinary places and show that we are only a part of a vast and delicate ecosystem. So what’s not to like about electronic and other media?

If we are to experience the world for ourselves and to fully participate in it then we have to have a sense of our location. If we locate ourselves in a virtual environment created by someone else then we become less human. Yes, it is important that we see ourselves through the eyes of another, but it is also important that we see, feel, smell, hear and taste the physical world around us. It is important that we take our physical being along roads and across boundaries. Children who only see the world on a screen are less likely to have an authentic relationship with those around them – even worse they can have their identity shaped by commercial and other interests intent on manufacturing mindless consumers of packaged values.

People who can really see the world and examine it – the poets, artists, writers, inventors – bring so much vitality to being human. We can enjoy the messages and insights they bring, but let us all find our own expression and be artists in our own way. Where we are.

Communicators not broadcasters – the power of relationships in conversation

It doesn’t take much to divide people; a wrong word or a misunderstanding can quickly create a relational barrier. Perhaps so-called offensive words or misunderstandings are symptomatic of much deeper issues finding an available path to come out.

People with deep hurt and brooding anger will often find release for their anger in causes that would otherwise be less dangerous spaces. Perhaps the whole Brexit affair would have been far less of a battleground if there were not already deep social hurts below the surface.

Words, of course, can never be offensive – it’s only their perceived meaning that makes them so. Words uttered even in kindness can sometimes be received as offensive. So what’s going on?

At the root of it are relationships. When I joined the BBC as a trainee 40 years ago (I’m old), I was taught about the importance of building a relationship with the audience. It’s important to know who you are speaking with (not “to” but “with”)and to be able to build dialogue. The term broadcasting is an unhelpful and antiquated word – what all “broadcasters” do is find a relationship with their listeners. Sometimes “broadcasters” talk directly to listeners on their programmes, at other times they might address their style and language to an imaginary model listener.

What I am trying to say is that relationships and communication can’t be separated. If there isn’t a connection with the audience there will be relevance, language and understanding gaps. (This also applies to products, services, decisions or other public activity that is applied without a basis of relationship with the recipient or beneficiary.)

As I said at the start, it’s not words that are offensive, it’s what we believe them to mean that is the problem. Within the context of a healthy relationship, we can use words much more confidently and even make mistakes in their usage without causing offence. Misunderstanding can be corrected with patience and we will find a much deeper listening and learning experience – if there is a foundational relationship.

I work with the Church of England and we are engaged in promoting models for good conversation between people of different cultures and life experiences. This is important for the church because without the capacity to build relationships out in our communities it will never be able to share thoughts and ideas about faith. The church will be dead in a generation or two if it simply tries to preach or broadcast to people with whom it has no meaningful relationship.

The bridges of friendship forged by the generosity and compassion (ofter through social action and volunteering) are a means of setting these outward-facing relationships in place. Only when we know and love our neighbours can we cease to be broadcasters and become communicators. Communities and church are transformed together in the relationship, for better or worse.

Photo Walking

Have you ever been on a photo walk? It might be as simple as a bunch of friends walking around a neighbourhood taking photos – no more than a social activity with the added interest of taking some snaps. I did regular photo walks a few years ago with people in my town who were part of an online photo sharing group. The joke was that we spent more time drinking coffee and talking than we did talking photos. The social element is often the real reason for doing a photo walk with the technical aspects being the “glue” that holds the group together.

In my work with local primary schools I organised some walks for parents and their children. The aim was to encourage conversations between parents. The striking thing about these walks was that they generated stories and revealed concerns about the neighbourhood that might not otherwise have been shared.

Whatever the reason for going on a photo walk the benefits are excellent. These benefits include friendly social interaction, improved physical health, discovering your neighbourhood, learning new skills and more.
One of the most important of these secondary benefits for me has been improved mental health. Walking around a neighbourhood with friends being attentive and experiencing the physical environment shares many characteristics with mindfulness. I understand that mindfulness works by drawing out attention into the present and away from past or future concerns; it encourages us to connect with the now, and be fully present.
The connection we feel when we belong to a group that shares an interest is also a powerful benefit. The dynamics of a group activity like a photo walk can include elements of giving and receiving and being affirmed for having a degree of skill of achievement.

Digging yet deeper we can also imagine exploring a neighbourhood with people who have different ways of seeing or perhaps come from a different cultural background. The walk, the conversations and the photos it generates have the potential to be highly enriching and transformative for all concerned.

I have organised and led quite a few photo walks over the years and so have decided to see how these can be developed to make more of these “secondary” benefits.

In the next few weeks I hope to take community photo walking onto the next level by setting up a couple of groups in West Yorkshire.

I’ll keep you posted.

Darkness and light to draw us into a deeper emotional experience

What is the relationship between subject, photographer and audience? Is it more than just keeping a record of a scene or is it about sharing something much more personal??

The experience of seeing a scene through the choices of the photographer sets up an emotional connection between the two parties. The photographer is not simply creating a record of what is in front of him or her but is, in fact, opening a dialogue with the viewer.

Thoughts, feelings and observations become a shared response to a specific setting and context transforming photographer and audience together. A collection of images presented by the photographer can over time represent a deep level of personal disclosure and vulnerability.

Thousands of Small Lights

The Archbishop of Canterbury is drawing attention to statistics showing the numbers of churches involved in social action. He mentions the food banks and money management courses, drop ins for the lonely and the winter night shelters among other work. This is a brilliant thing and shows that the faith communities continue to notice and serve people who are disadvantaged. But is it the full picture?

There is no doubt that churches of all denominations and other faith groups are specially motivated by their faith to serve the poor.

The report seems to focus on the Church as local CofE organisations rather than a movement of faithful people in everyday society. It has tried to establish links between these episcopal bodies and local partner organisations. This is helpful but I think this approach to data gathering might limit the view of what’s actually going on in terms of faith responses. Church responses and faith responses are not the same thing.

Across West Yorkshire there are countless small organisations and thousands of volunteers who don’t claim to do the work motivated by faith. There are many small churches that don’t have any such formal activities or partnerships and yet their members faithfully serve their neighbours and participate in secular activities not recorded as faith based responses. They are thousands of small lights.

I welcome report and encouraged by it. However, I think the real story is much, much bigger. There is a legion of people in this country who are motivated by something that goes beyond just good work. Even those people who claim to have no faith are perhaps responding God’s presence which is there is all of us. Without doubt it can’t be owned exclusively by the Church of England or any other faith group.

So yes, a great insight into what the churches are doing but let’s not forget that faith based social action goes way beyond this encouraging little window.

Places of Welcome

The UK Government’s drive to deal with loneliness and isolation comes at a time when there is increased pressure on local services, particularly those that cater for the most vulnerable and isolated. There are many factors which can induce feelings of fear and isolation, among them threats to our identity and sense of belonging. In the run up to Brexit some members of our communities have certainly felt less welcome than others. It does look as though government policy is on the one hand contributing to isolation and on the other attempting to deal with it. Balanced if nothing else.

To be fair there are many reasons for loneliness and isolation. At particular stages of life feelings of loneliness and isolation can be a particular problem – people displaced from their home, those going through the asylum process, single parents struggling to look after young children, those facing disability issues, the bereaved, the unemployed and the retired to name but a few.

Loneliness can affect anyone including young people and the solution is not necessarily to provide expensive specialist services but in the first place creating spaces for people to feel safe and grow supportive relationships – something the church is really, really good at. Simply sitting down with someone and having a cup of tea or a cake is a great place to start.

Over the last year Wellsprings Together, a joint venture between the Anglican Diocese of Leeds and the Church Urban Fund has been piloting a scheme in Bradford called Places of Welcome. The Places of Welcome network is a national initiative which draws together churches, community organisations and other faith groups to develop safe spaces for people to belong and relate well to one another. The Places of Welcome Network works closely with local authorities to identify areas of greatest need and to make the best use of available resources.

Typically a Place of Welcome will be a volunteer led drop-in which provides an opportunity to meet other people, have some free food or refreshments and a chat. Churches and other community groups have been doing this kind of thing for generations but this new network will provide support for those running Places of Welcome or wanting to open new ones. Working in partnership with local authorities and service providers Places of Welcome can also be places of provision as well as hospitality.

Reducing loneliness and isolation makes good economic sense. With one in four people experiencing poor mental health interventions like Places of Welcome can help take pressure off the National Health Service. Raising people’s levels of confidence and wellbeing through Places of Welcome can lead to much wider benefits.

As well as Places of Welcome, Wellsprings Together also supports school holiday clubs which help get parents and their children out of the home and engaged with their local community. One mother I spoke to said her sanity had been restored when she was able to meet other local people at the holiday club. She said her hyperactive son had learned to cook and was now feeding the family healthy food, “it was the first time he’d ever eaten courgettes” she said.

At a church in Bradford a visitor called John told me he’d recently retired and felt that his world had collapsed in on itself. After getting involved with a Place of Welcome he is now an active member of the church helping other people to feel valued and supported. There are countless stories like these including those of young mothers looking for support, frightened refugees, people dealing with a marriage breakdown, the recently bereaved and many more.

Places of Welcome and other projects which bring different parts of the community together will be part of the new five year strategy for the Diocese of Leeds which aims to see confident Christians, growing churches and transforming communities.

Importantly churches in the Anglican Diocese of Leeds are resources for the whole community and not just for Christians and the vision is for all people to live as God intended free from poverty, fear and injustice.

Mark Waddington is the Social Engagement Officer at the Anglican Diocese of Leeds. If you would like to know more about the Places of Welcome Network please email or Emily Tidball the Places of Welcome coordinator

You can also visit

The bishop’s wobbly bridge

A 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.

On 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.

What does integration mean in Bradford?

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.