Be nice if the CofE could do some proper brand advertising

It concerns me that the Church of England for whom I work sometimes equates the transfer of text based information with communication. A word written or read out loud is not the same as a word received.

The written or spoken word in a religious context is often a kind of legal transaction which establishes the terms of membership. The words are a statement of what we are signed up to. We are connected in a formal sense but it requires creative expression to bring the meaning to life. I wish we could be more like the advertisers, or at least learn from them.growing-younger-header.png.576x260_q100


In fact, I spoke too soon! Birmingham diocese has grasped the advertising thing with both hands in this message – “we’re growing younger”. In an unconventional move the diocese wants to install significant numbers of young people in positions of leadership.

Yamaha places a piano in a shopping area inviting the pubic to play.
Yamaha places a piano in a shopping area inviting the pubic to play.  An accessible and creative brand. A live product demonstration.

It has been said that St Francis of Assisi urged his followers to preach the Gospel, “use words if you have to”, but maybe he never said those words, I don’t know. The point is that it’s the stories that make the communication – every colourful detail of how we live our lives becomes our sermon.

We are compelled to tell our story by whatever means we have at our disposal. It is no use saying that words are better than pictures or any other medium for that matter.

What matters is the connection. The famous theme at the start of EM Forsters Howards End is “only connect”. That’s just it – THE CONNECTION. We live in fragments searching for a connection and in the end that’s what we strive to achieve.

Lloyds Bank advertising in Leeds
Lloyds Bank advertising in Leeds positioning banking as part of your life story and values. It takes no time at all to read.

I think it is fair to say that we live in a time where the captured image is the medium of choice when it comes to communicating stories; from films to magazines, to websites.  The power of the photograph to connect with people is extremely powerful.  But we must remember that according to Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message. I understand from this that the words on the printed page can be spoken, and that the voice may convey images, and that the images can embody the stories.

Pictures have always been engaging and in our busy, mobile world pictures are now also extremely convenient.  An image can communicate an idea far more quickly than a paragraph of text. It is this convenience in our speeded up world that is the important thing to remember. This surge of interest in photography is not to diminish the power of words at all, it is simply to say that in our busy lives we need to keep it short. In fact pictures can assume tremendous power when accompanied by a few words of text. Poetry is a wonderful form. This leads me on the Twitter.

Twitter is a social media channel that restricts posts to 140 characters with the option of accompanying image, as you may know. The two most striking observations we can make is firstly that brevity (both in expressing and reading) is important and secondly that the message does not persist, by which I mean that it is designed to be visible only for a short time.

iPhone 6
The on-screen image is the message of this iPhone ad. Design and creativity.

So, the way we consume messages today is in the fleeting moments available to us.

As a society we are expected to be in sync with the conversations going on around us as they happen. These fragments of conversation are connected to other fragments of conversation and eventually coalesce into coherent ideas. We must be alert to the conversation.

The ideas are forming collectively with many voices participating. There is a flow and a rhythm to the dialogue which can be a beautiful thing. The connectedness of these conversations is a step towards being connected as humans and so here lies a wonderful prospect.

Yes I love photography and I love advertising because those who excel in these arts have understood that communication is about connection and  relationship not simply the transfer of information.

Islands within islands under siege

At the weekend I caught up with the controversial edition of Songs of Praise from Calais which included conversations with migrants determined to get into Britain. The programme reminded me that these were real human beings. It all seems very sad and unacceptable at so many levels. Here I am in a comfortable corner of England’s green and pleasant land, while not so far away life is relentlessly crap for these poor souls.

A common approach (which the programme may have challenged) is to 1. identify the people we want to get rid of, 2. paint them as black as possible and then 3. crack down on them. Hopefully if we have spun it right we will get a round of applause and re-elected. Politics of fear.

The government’s apparent strategy of making life hell for unwanted people seems mediaeval. I can get that an open gate would lead to chaos but allowing people to fall into abject poverty as a deterrent doesn’t seem right, does it?  It seems to indicate an absence of a compassionate strategy, and not for the first time. These people are not coming here as “tourists” they are people in desperate circumstances. They are labelled as “marauders” and “illegals” who are intentionally taking advantage of the system. The word illegal is used as though it is a fundamental part of their identity. True outcasts.

People who beak rules in desparation are unlikely to go away. Some might take the view that if the law comes into conflict with our basic human (or Christian) values then of course chaos is going to ensue. We either have to challenge the policy or adjust our values. This is where we are.

No matter what the right or wrong I can’t see that allowing refugees and asylum seekers to fall into deprivation is an appropriate form of control.  More broadly this kind of strategy could lead to a division between those whom we consider respectable citizens and the outcasts who inhabit dark ghettos.  We risk creating Folk Devils from which we must protect ourselves – islands within islands under siege. Once we use labels and repression to control people we are setting up division and encouraging conflict.

The “marauding” migrants whether legal or not are being forced to live as outsiders not embraced as brothers or sisters in need.

A perfectly formed circle. The social responsibility network

Another enlightening day with the CofE this time with the Social Responsibility Network, SRN, at Church House in London. A grand entrance just round the back of Westminster Abbey with lots of marble and polished brass. Doors with numbers and important looking inscriptions. It reminded me of my first day at the BBC at Broadcasting House more than 30 years ago, those mysterious corridors with important things going on behind slightly ajar doors.

Room number five was the setting for our meeting, a medium sized conference room. The group was sitting in a large circle. Forgive me, but pretty well all the meetings at the Church of England have taken place sitting in a large circle. I thought at first it was to achieve equality but I’m beginning the think it is in fact to maintain the maximum distance between participants. I was a late-comer on account of being a Northerner and so had to get the entire circle to shuffle outwards by a small but disruptive adjustment calculated by Pi.

The group was made up of Church of England officers, a title I don’t altogether warm to. The social responsibility officers are there to make sure the parishes take proper care of their poor, as all Christians are called to do. Exactly how this is done will be resolved when the cows come home but in the meantime we were there to bond and behave as one.

There seems to me to be four disconnected groups of people – ones who talk about mission, those who decide how it’s to be done, those who deliver mission and then finally the beneficiaries. This list is in ascending order of importance but is often transposed. Wouldn’t it be good if we could merge them a little bit or at least have a drink together?

The conversation at one point sailed dangerously towards those organisational promontories called power and decision making – do we do our mission top down or bottom up? How does the Church of England maintain one big glorious national identity while at the same time being a myriad of independently minded parishes?

Let me put on my old BBC producer hat for a moment. I would say that the only way to produce meaningful content is to get as close as possible to the stories. BBC journalism is constructed around the presence of reporters in each of the communities. To properly understand people you have to live with them, or even be one of them. I heard the term journalism of attachment mentioned once by Martin Bell. The Church of England has as its glorious strength a presence in every community – this in much the same way as the BBC aspires through its local reporters. The link between national and local is critically, critically important.

The BBC needs these local connections as does the Church of England. The role of the BIG organisation is to equip and protect those ground troops in order be present in people’s lives. The organisation at the centre pulls together the global picture and helps put the stories into a broader context – to be able to explain what’s going on. To help people in their small corners see the big picture; to help those with power work for the greater good and to call them to account. We need both the BBC and the Church of England at both national and local level. I believe.

The concept of the BBC is possibly more important than its organisation. The BBC – the most creative producer of high quality television and radio on the planet. The BBC stands for truth, creativity, inclusivity and exceptional quality. It is independent and not swayed by commercial pressures (wish). It is bound by the licence fee in a contact with its viewers to be inclusive, and without the BBC the world would be a less secure and more uncertain place. Gosh.

How am I going to end this blog post? Well, I think there is a challenge to connect the Church of England in a single identity clearly expressed. What’s it for and why do we need it? There is lots of talk about structure but I think the concept of the Church of England is more important. The people and the languages they use carry the message of the Church of England and importantly the Gospel message. If we really do have a presence in every community then we will have a diverse membership and a diverse leadership. We will be fluent in a range of lingos and celebrate difference. We will bring people together while affirming independence. The way we talk will be inclusive and respectful and we will demonstrate love by welcoming and serving all members of our communities. Our theology will formed with a local accent.

I am now in a packed train carriage practically sitting on the the lap of the bloke next to me. There are people standing in the aisles spilling coffee. Maybe that’s a better image than a perfectly formed circle.

Inclusive Church (or the Oceans 11 model)

Yesterday I went to a conference on inclusive church held at All Saints in Keighley – many thanks to Bob Callaghan, David Austin, Jonathan Pritchard, Elizabeth Millwain and others. So what do I now think about inclusive church?

My ideal model of church would be an Oceans 11 church. Oceans 11 is a crime thriller staring George Clooney and Brad Pitt. A bunch of misfits who would otherwise not have anything to do with each other find themselves all mutually dependent. They each have their own particular talents – a safe cracker, security specialist, structural engineer, electronics expert and a getaway driver. Danny Ocean wants to score the biggest heist in history. A shared mission.

I’m jesting of course, not suggesting church and criminality are necessarily linked but I do find some inspiration here. In Christ’s deepest hour of need his closest ally was the criminal with whom he was crucified – the criminal who was redeemed.

The organised and brazen Hatton Garden robbery was a crime which grabbed the attention of the world’s press for obvious reasons. The crooks hatch a technically demanding plan to break into a seemingly secure bank vault over the Easter holidays. The comparison with Oceans 11 is clear to see with the newspapers characterising the criminals as Mr Ginger, Mr Strong and so on. Whatever else you can say about it the story will be remembered.

The really great thing about the Church of England is that it is open to all sorts, and it should be easy to break into. On Sunday morning services across the land bring together people who otherwise may have little in common – social workers, city bankers, doctors, factory workers, children, retired people and maybe repentant bank robbers. Ideally we will set aside any prejudice or thought for power or status and celebrate our equality as children of God.

The aim of the Inclusive Church Conference was to think about the ways in which we can welcome people into the church and accept them for who they are (not what they are). What does making people feel accepted really mean in terms of our attitude and practical accommodation? How do we value what they bring? Disability, sexuality, mental health, ethnicity – all these and other considerations can make demands on the way we organise and conduct church. We were introduced to the concept of radical welcome which involved valuing the contribution and identity of people beyond simply being tolerant.

There is no question that including all people is at the heart of Christian theology. The rag bag of people Jesus associated with and embraced should inspire us to value all people and especially those whom we find challenging. To hold such a conference suggests there is work to be done, which of course there is.

The Church of England will do really well if it has a really strong sense of purpose and mission, if it values diversity of experience and rises to the challenge of working with the outsiders. The cost will be to embrace those who are difficulty to work with, a commitment to reconciliation and some serious risk taking.

Jesus didn’t break into a secure vault, he broke out of one – on Easter morning.

Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche.

I directed a programme on BBC 1 years ago from L’Arche in London and it had a profound influence on me.

I share with you a video from Together for the Common Good. T4CG invited Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche organisation, to address a cross party gathering of MPs and Peers on the 19th January.

The video is about 50 minutes but one which would be good to make time for and explores what it means to truly meet someone, “heart to heart”.

(The film was made by Intelligent Life)

Is your church or charity paying too much for its energy?

gasThis week we’ve heard that at least one energy company will be reducing its prices, and so, like all good households, it makes sense to review your church or charity bills and switch supplier if savings can be made. However, there may be another big way you can make energy savings.

Charities and non-profit organisations are entitled to a VAT reduction, from 20% down to 5%, on energy used for ‘non-business’ purposes as well as exemption from the Climate Change Levy.  Shockingly many charities and churches have been unaware of overpayments and energy companies won’t automatically put you on the correct rate.

In a recent piece of research for ITV News * many good causes are paying too much VAT on the power they use.  They found that in a sample of more than 100 that around a third may be overpaying.  Some of these overpayments go back many years and amount to many thousands of pounds.

Energy companies sometimes treat charities and churches like small businesses and won’t automatically set the correct level of VAT.  According to the ITV research the energy industry says they want to be as helpful as possible but can’t act if they don’t have all the information.

So, the call to churches and charities is to take a look at your energy bills and see how much VAT you are paying. You may be due for a big refund!

Achieving something together as a community. Bees.

At Oblong Leeds, where I work part time, we have about 50 volunteers all of whom are involved in volunteer led projects of one sort or another.  It’s amazing how motivated people can be when they see a need and realise they have the power to make a difference.  There are thousands of people and organisations doing good work around our cities.

This is a story from Todmorden in Yorkshire which is a brilliant case study of how people with passion and energy can engage with their community and have fun achieving something together.  This project is about bees and I’m impressed by the practical and inspired approach to making this project fly.

 

Leeds Clothing Exchange at Woodhouse Community Centre

Very pleased to see this article in the Guardian about The Leeds Clothing Exchange (see link) at the Woodhouse Community Centre.  This is one of the groups that Oblong Leeds hosts at the centre and works to support.

The Leeds Clothing Exchange , which gives people access to fresh affordable clothes, has become very popular in Woodhouse.  The video I see was made by Big Blue Whale in Leeds.  I’m encouraged that local groups like this including those producing video and photography can find a place in the big media.

The article is part of a Live Better series which looks great.

Rich places

I’m sitting here at Woodhouse Community Centre incredibly moved by the people who have passed through the centre today.  Simply opening a space for people to talk and work together and do stuff brings about quite magical (if chaotic) results.

There are people who have fled to Leeds from terrible situations in other parts of the world – they are learning English in the Cafe. There’s a youth inclusion project in the main hall which is providing a safe space for children up to 14. (They tell me that in this area, once you get to 14 you’re on your own, there’s little provision for older teenagers.) There’s a lady helping in the older people’s craft session who used to be a renowned bass player in an internationally successful jazz band. Wow a great story.  Every corner is filled by people determined to get somewhere or do something positive.

The level of deep human need in our cities is really quite shocking, but it does provide an opportunity for showing great kindness. The thing that strikes me is that there are many thousands a people across the city who are making sacrifices to meet other people’s need. These are talented and gifted people who make a positive choice to put other people first. Creating the space for generous  people to do these things is essential.

Here’s a video produced to promote the work of the Inn Churches in Bradford, a scheme to open church buildings to homeless people during the winter months. It tells a story.

Keeping perspective on social media. Oblong, All Saints and the CofE

I have been working with Oblong Leeds, a community development charity for some years now and we are at last getting round to re-working the organisation’s website. I’m also helping to develop the on-line presence of All Saints church in Ilkley and am part of a forum to discuss the on-line activities of the new CofE diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales. I have resolved to be a bit more diligent in capturing my thoughts here, flimsy as they sometimes are.

I’m getting involved in these activities because I feel that communities must communicate, there are voices that need to be heard and stories that really must be told.

I’m not a web designer or an expert in social media, though I have worked for the BBC and more recently for ITV as the manager responsible for a news website. I can say that I am passionate about telling stories. Stories about who we are and the places we live should not be left to the professional journalists alone; talented as they may be there is only so much they can do. The world is so much bigger.

The big sparkling new diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales, whatever you think of the decision, throws up an opportunity for fresh thinking, particularly in the area of communications. We are not talking about a clean slate because there is much that is good, but the disruption of re-organisation gets people thinking and talking – and talking is certainly what we should be doing. If we want to encourage conversation then Yorkshire is a great place to do it – blunt, diverse and passionate communities of every persuasion and experience.

The incisive question I am working with right now is as follows: How can we equip communities to tell their stories connecting them to each other and with the wider world?

As All Saints Ilkley puts it we are “finding connections with God” and in the process we are finding connections with each other (or is it the other way round?). As I find myself repeating, communications and relationships are absolutely dependent on one another.

At its most profound, communication wouldn’t require technology or language, we would just know. However our relationships are highly dependent on language and technology and if we are to put relationships with each other and God at the highest level then grapple with language and technology we must.

The on-line world of websites and social media is often dismissed by some people as an irritation and a waste of time. I would urge anyone to look at how radically the process of maintaining relationships has changed in recent years. There are extraordinary opportunities for people to open conversations with strangers and experience different worlds. Websites, social media, photography, video if an end in themselves would be a waste of time, but there is real evidence that the creative expression these tools enable is bringing people together with amazing significance. Social media in some parts of the world is literally revolutionary. Shared visual media is extending the reach of communication to those who struggle with words. Power is shifting.

When we’re setting up our social media channels and websites I think it is essential to keep an eye on these higher opportunities for bringing communities together, telling important stories, giving marginalised people a voice, seeing the the world as it really is.

For me, participation is the key which is why I hate the concept of the web-master or the notion that there are ‘experts’ in social media. Intuitive use of these tools should be the aim but I accept that we need people to encourage and share good practice.

Even today at Oblong Leeds we’ve been doing our quarterly planning and on-line communication is playing a big part. We are driving for outcomes in education & skills, employment, raised aspirations, expanded world view, community cohesion – so what activities can we implement? It could be those activities which connect people together, give us a strong sense of identity and self worth, pull people together around a common purpose.

Websites and social media can’t change anything. I cant change anything. I do believe websites and social media may improve the possibility of change just so long as we don’t lose sight of the big goals which can be reached by shared conversations and relationship building.