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saltire butterfly

I wrote this provocation paper a couple of days after the referendum for a conference called ‘Where Church and Kingdom Collide’.  I then presented a second version at the conference.  I’d love to hear your thoughts, not so much on the referendum, but on the lessons it might have for the church.

The Ripples of the Butterfly Revolution (Part 1)

The campaign for Scottish Independence has lessons for the church

On 18th September 2014 something remarkable happened. 84.15% of the people registered to vote in Scotland cast their vote in the referendum. I’m not about to rehearse the arguments for or against, or comment on the result. Rather, I will suggest that nothing will ever be the same again for UK politics. Things have changed, and this change has far reaching lessons, and perhaps consequences, for the church. This paper is a collection of thoughts and observations on what those lessons might be. They perhaps come too quick on the heels of a tumultuous event to be clear and in any way definitive so please take them in the spirit they are offered.

Big Beasts and Butterflies

As I made my way late in the afternoon on the day before the referendum from one meeting to another, I found myself in George Square in the heart of Glasgow among thousands of YES supporters who had gathered in an impromptu rally. I know it wasn’t planned because the person in charge of the PA system broadcast an appeal for someone to go for petrol as the generator was running out. Someone went on a bike. It felt a bit like it could be Tahir Square or the Brandenburg Gate. There was an excitement, an anticipation, a togetherness I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. Children and pensioners danced and people dared to dream. Something was happening. Something had changed.

Robin McAlpine described the campaign for Scottish Independence as a ‘butterfly rebellion’[1], a term which paints a colourful picture of a collective of over 350 campaign groups and thousands of individuals pitted against the might of the ‘British Empire’. 97% of those eligible to vote registered. Turn out was 84.5%, compared to 33.5% for the recent European Elections. I wonder if revolution is a more appropriate term than rebellion?

Politics has changed in Scotland. More than that, Scotland has changed politics in the UK. The referendum has engaged and energized people from across the political spectrum and way beyond it, to read, discuss, debate, protest, party, canvas and care. The debate has been painted as a battle between a top down dictate and a bottom up rebellion, between Westminster’s big beasts and the colourful indy butterflies and blasting canon-balls at butterflies just doesn’t work.

It seems that the beats of those butterfly wings from the 1.6 million people who voted Yes and, perhaps also from the 2 million people who were persuaded to vote No on the promise of more powers, are being felt as a whirlwind in Westminster. The political agenda has shifted.

 

The Power of ‘Yes’

It turns out that lots of people are innately hopeful. Especially those who have no business being optimistic. The poor voted ‘Yes’. The rich voted ‘No’.

The chance to frame the Scottish referendum question was crucial to the shape of the campaign. ‘Yes’ is positive, ‘No’ is negative. ‘Yes’ is for, ‘No’ is against.

When you start from the positive everything feels positive. The Yes campaign felt energetic, vibrant and most of all creatively subversive.

When you start from ‘No’ it’s so much harder to frame it as a positive choice. You have to find a different way to say it, like ‘Better Together’. The problem then is disassociation with the answer you want people to choose, so Better Together became ‘No, thanks’, a ‘polite but firm refusal’ made from an ‘informed position’ to choose the union instead.

It would be easy to dismiss a No vote as a vote for the status quo, but it wasn’t that at all, despite the hugely negative campaign from No, labelled ‘Project Fear’ by its own architects.

The simplistic view is that the electorate responded in two ways, to the hope of change and to fear of change. That misses the complex and nuanced motivations, but the fact remains, the poor voted Yes. What do we do with that? Who stands with them? Is it us?

It’s not a huge jump to suggest that we, the church, are often the ‘No’ people. The old mantra of ‘we are all sinners’ is of course true but it stops short of the Good News, the ‘Yes’, the part where we have been forgiven and restored and enter into a story which is a never ending cycle of re-creation. There is no ‘No’ for us, no matter how much we might want there to be.

 

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

It’s the perceived wisdom that the media wins elections. The Sunday Herald, with a circulation of just 24,000, was the sole media supporter of one side of the argument. Others, like the Guardian and The Herald had supportive content, but no other newspapers declared support for Yes. Most were openly hostile.

A couple of thousand people marched on the BBC last Sunday to protest about ‘biased coverage’ in favour of the No campaign. Poor old Auntie Beeb was caught trying to balance coverage of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband as well as between Yes and No. They chose the establishment… and the people noticed.

The polls showed the race too close to call. In the end it was a clear 55/45% win for No, but close enough from a no hope starting position for Yes. How does that happen? We’ve been told again and again that people are not interested in politics, voters are apathetic, and that politicians are disengaged from the people. Well, 84.5%% of those eligible to vote in Scotland proved that wrong.

Paul Mason wrote about the Arab Spring that “truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable”[2], especially true in our world of social media, and that “they all seem to know each other”. Networking, gathering, sharing information, challenging statements and lies are all at the heart of these networks.

Power was very quickly devolved. The Yes Campaign’s idea was to build a framework that supported grass-roots activism, the ground war, while the No Campaign focused on the media, the ‘air war’. It almost worked in terms of this campaign but the lasting legacy of thousands of politically engaged citizens might be the legacy of this campaign.

I wonder which campaign style the church adopts? I fear that often we choose the ‘air war’ even though our flat structure should be the very model of that ‘ground war’ organisation.

 

Shouting Louder Doesn’t Convince People. Being funny does.

Shouting, pointing, lecturing and bullying doesn’t convince people about anything other than they don’t like people shouting, pointing, lecturing and bullying, especially if they are on the receiving end.

People have not been convinced one way or the other by speeches and TV debates. They have been convinced by family members and friends in living rooms, coffee shops and bars, on buses and trains, in canteens and on shop floors. People, who have never engaged in any kind of political conversation, let alone campaign, have canvassed their neighbours. People have educated themselves, checked facts and formed opinions. When people have told them what to think they turn away and said we’ll make up our own mind, thanks.

The thing is, we, the church, know all that. But we still persist with a top down model which trains people to be ‘experts’ and who still too often stand at the front and dispense wisdom (and I do it too, but then I’m very wise and know more about theology than they do…). Theology is still a spectator sport for the church.

More information makes people more likely to vote but stories are just as important. Actually, stories are central. We have fallen into the trap of ignoring our stories; the stories of God and of our people and communities. Worse than that we divorce those stories and instead serve up platitudes. The Hebrew tradition is one of stories and criticism. The stories are there to wonder about, not to learn or explain, not to apply reason and logic to. They are fluid, living and accessible.

The real story of the referendum has been people’s stories, not the politics. The internet is awash with tales of people’s journeys from No to Yes and Yes to No, from Anarchist to registered voter, of 65 year old first time voters and 16 year olds given the chance to join their society.

The temptation to try to explain and rationalise these stories is far too great.

This whole independence debate has been one big meaning-making exercise. It has been a collective grappling, grasping, wrestle with the story of the land and it’s people and how that relates to us and our friends and our neighbours.

That’s what church should be.

And if it’s not that we should put off the lights and go home.

In fact, perhaps that’s what we should do anyway if we want to foster a ground-up movement rather than a top down institution. Perhaps that’s the real lesson here.

 

Standing on the Outside Looking In?

The churches in Scotland all decided not to take a position on independence, given the range of varying opinion across their membership. Instead they stood on the side-lines and spoke of the need for respect and reconciliation, a perfectly legitimate place to be. It was left to others to offer theological critique and insight and it feels as though that reticence to engage has made the debate poorer, robbing it of a crucial perspective.

Harry Burns, professor of Global Public Health, observed:

“The comfortable middle class voted to stay comfortable. So, who now speaks for the poor?”

It’s a fair question.

The polling analysis shows a direct correlation between poverty and voting Yes. It seems apparent then that the poor want change in the political system, but who stands with them? The church?

The ‘system’ is broken. Everyone knows it, but nobody has any idea how to start again. It may be ironic that one of the criticisms of the prospectus set out for independence was that ‘you can’t tell us what it will look like’.

For some, the opportunity of independence offered was a chance to press ‘reset’ on the political system, a chance just too good to pass up. As I have noted, the Yes vote was biggest in the poorest areas of Scotland. Perhaps when you have nothing to lose taking a chance might be easier?

For most of the last two years it feels like Scotland has been engaged in a great big church meeting. We know we need to change. We had two options before us but the thing the majority of people actually wanted, further devolution or a federalised settlement, wasn’t in the table because of some odd procedural quirk but it seems like constitutional change will be coming for the whole of the UK.

Where will the church stand in that conversation? On the side-lines, holding the jackets and murmuring about reconciliation when it’s all over? Or is there a more radical, creative place for the church right at the heart of this change?

Butterflies only live for a few days. They are caterpillars which changed into something with wings and flew. What’s the point of a few days as a butterfly? Without them plants and flowers would not be pollinated and nothing would grow.

So for us, does this mean that after a lot of work and struggle something beautiful might be born, but that this beautiful thing may not last long? Are we in a place where we, the church, could (and should) be ok with that kind of existence?

Could we put all our energy into collecting the sustenance we need and then allowing it to transform us, knowing that the outcome will be spectacular and beautiful, but short-lived, knowing that our transformation will transform the world?

Promises have been made. The Pandora’s box of constitutional reform has been opened on the steps of Downing Street and you can’t just put a lid back on something like that.

People across these islands are ready for change. The change people voted Yes for, and No for, was a fairer, more just society. A common weal. So questions now are asked, what next?

“What makes the difference between us keeping going and us drifting off? There are many things and you’ll have your own thoughts. But two factors are quite high up on the list. The first is the balance between the struggle to change our society and the struggle to keep going. We’re all pretty exhausted and campaigning and organising takes time. Even staying in contact and coordinating takes time and effort. And the importance of ‘the accidental’ is a well-known factor in successful social movements – the accidental meeting of people who came from different backgrounds and didn’t realise they had so much in common, the accidental realisation that two different campaigns are actually working in the same area, the accidental idea that comes from listening to someone not in your usual circle and so on.

So what we, The Common Weal, are trying to do is create infrastructure that makes keeping going as easy as possible. If there are places to meet, where accidental coming-together can be encouraged (and also somewhere attractive and pleasant to draw new people in), organising becomes easier.

This is about trying to provide infrastructure for others to use to make keeping going as easy as possible. We don’t want to control this – in fact, we couldn’t anyway. We are serious about providing infrastructure which supports others.”

Wow. Does that sound like anywhere we know?

But back to the butterflies…

The SNP now has 72,500 members (now over 80,000), up from 25,642 at 5pm on ‘Dependence Day’.

Butterflies only live for a few days. They are caterpillars which changed into something with wings, and flew. When it is time, the caterpillar creates a cocoon, a chrysalis, in which a metamorphosis happens. They change from one thing into something different, from a caterpillar into a butterfly. From something that eats plants into something without which plants and flowers would not be pollinated and could not grow.

So for us, the church, does this mean that after a lot of work and struggle something beautiful might be born, but that this beautiful thing may not last long?

Are we in a place where we, the church, could (and should) be ok with that kind of existence?

Is capturing the moment and institutionalising it not what we are warned about in the story of the transfiguration, that moment where the truth of Jesus is revealed and the disciples want to build places to keep it in and preserve it forever? How very like us.

An independent Scotland existed for a day. Between 7am and 10pm we held the destiny of our nation in our hands. It was short lived, and for the 45%, for the poor and the marginalised, it was beautiful. It felt like the last days of the Empire. There was a New Hope, but then the Empire Struck Back.

I wonder, could we put all our energy into collecting the sustenance we need and then allowing it to transform us completely, knowing that the outcome will be spectacular and beautiful, but short-lived. Knowing that our transformation will transform the world? On the morning after the riots in George Square in Glasgow people brought hundreds of bags of food for the city’s foodbanks.

Tackling the Empire is where I think we should be. A million butterflies spreading the pollen of hope and seeing what grows from it, because hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.

 

[1] http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2014/09/14/the-butterfly-rebellion/

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/legacy/newsnight/paulmason/2011/02/twenty_reasons_why_its_kicking.html

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There are times when you stumble across something really quite special.

In the middle of a break on the Isle of Skye, Avril and I rounded a corner on a single track road in  and instantly recognised a wooden house which was featured on the TV show Grand Designs.  I’m going to try to explain what happened next…

house

The house is stunning but our attention was drawn to the small studio behind the main house and the sign on the fence… Single Track Art & Espresso.  It was that time of the day when a coffee seems like the best idea in the world but art and coffee in a brilliantly designed building…  what’s not to like?

single track 2

As we entered the cafe we immediately felt really welcome.  It’s hard to explain why.  The space is relaxed with a counter to sit at around two sides and four tables together in the centre of the room.  There are no separate tables so the people who were there, both locals and tourists, were chatting about where to go, what to see and where they had come from.  Indi, the owner/barista, was making coffee and drawing people gently into the conversation.

Single Track(Photo from https://www.facebook.com/SingleTrackSkye)

People were just leaving when we arrived.  We were guided through the menu of coffee, hot chocolate (no ordinary chocolate!) and teas.  Tea was only added to the menu when the tea shop along the road decided not to open.  Complementary not competition was the motivation here.

We ordered a flat white for me and a hot chocolate with chilli and stuff for Avril and cake.  As Indi made our drinks she told us that Single Track had only been open for a couple of weeks.  It was an experiment that had grown organically out of a couple of gatherings of friends and wondering how this space could add something special to an already special place.  Artisan coffee and chocolate was the answer.

A young couple arrived and ordered takeaway coffee, just at the time the bank was due.  In island communities the bank comes to you, in a van, with a man in a suit and everything.

The bank and the couple left leaving us to chat more with Indi about art, coffee and Moleskine notebooks.  She’s a big fan of my favourite notebooks so we chatted about evernote, the mobile app which can link to your notebook using smart stickers.  Anyone who has a Moleskine catalogue as part of the reading material in a cafe has life sussed as far as I’m concerned!

The drinks were fantastic and the view…

single track 1

Well, the view is something else.

We chatted and drank and looked out the window and chatted some more.  Then we left with cakes.  The bank coming had interrupted the cake serving but it really didn’t matter.  We would be back.  We tweeted @singletrackskye to say so.

In fact we ended up back the very next day.  It was the first thing we said in the morning… ‘Let’s go back there today.’

But why?  Sure, the coffee is better than great and the hot chocolate is pretty special, but why drive 12 miles for a drink?  Because we weren’t going there for the drinks, or even the cakes.

We were going for the community.

I’m still trying to work out what it is about this small space that is so special.  It could be the design, the view, the cups, the art, the coffee, the host, the way the tables encourage conversation or allow you just to stare out the window, the Moleskine notebooks, pencils and pens, the yellow chairs…

Perhaps it’s just the sum of its parts.

I think it is more likely that all of this is deliberate.  Creating this kind of community is never accidental.  It takes work, persistence, design and vision.  And it works.

Single Track Art & Espresso is more than a coffee shop.  It’s a community centre that brings together the local people of Skye and those who come to this amazing island to visit.  It creates a space where everyone is part of the same community for a while, where stories of travels are encouraged, where advice is shared and coffee and hot chocolate are elevated to the same artistic expression as the paintings on the wall.

It is special.

Go there.  And tell Indi we sent you.

https://www.facebook.com/SingleTrackSkye

 

 

 

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Pilots Worship Pack Lost and Found

 

I’m delighted to see the new Pilots Worship Pack: Lost and Found, which Soo and I wrote, is about to be sent out into the wild. It’s a pack with 4 sessions which help young people to explore the idea of Lost and Found along with some resources for a worship service led by young people.  The resource comes from Pilots but would be suitable for use with any groups of children and young people.

I’ll post the details of where you can get a copy as soon as it is available.

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When people ask you what good the church does… point them to WEvolution, a charity helping to encourage self-reliant groups:

WEvolution works alongside people, particularly women, who are on low incomes or are unemployed and are determined to improve their lives and those of their families. We bring them together in Self-Reliant Groups (SRGs). These are small groups of 5 to 10 women who develop strong bonds of trust and friendship, save small amounts of money together, learn skills and support each other to create opportunities for themselves. These are often through starting up micro-businesses to earn an income and improve their livelihoods.

WEvolution’s Self-Reliant Groups (SRGs) are the first of their kind in the UK and inspire change, pride and enterprise in local communities.

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Our work is built upon three key elements:

We believe that people, regardless of where they live and their circumstances, want financial stability for themselves and their families and can be very enterprising in their determination to achieve this.

We hold that when people come together in small groups where there is trust, friendships and collective striving towards common goals, they have a greater chance to turn their lives around.

We are convinced that women have a special contribution to make to our society and economy and empowering them is key to addressing a number of issues including child poverty and health inequalities.

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Does church maintain the status quo?  We talk a good game about transformation and renewal but are we organisationally set up to avoid it?

Broken Rhythms

This isn’t a new question for me.

I remember thinking about it when I was training for youth work at Jordanhill in 1991.  Apparently other people had been thinking about organisational inertia it for longer than that because there were books written about it.

In youth work this questions appears in the guise of ‘Do we train young people to be good, middle class, well mannered high achievers?’ or ‘Do we just want young people to be like us?’.

There is some really interesting stuff around at the moment about how we might work with young people to develop an authentic expression of church with no expectation that they should or would even want to worship and gather in community in the same way we might.

There is another aspect to this question… Does the church maintain the political and social status quo?

I remember sitting in a Church of Scotland General Assembly where someone suggested a change.  The Principle Clerk stood up and stated that such a change would require an Act of Parliament.  The clear implication taken was that this would be too difficult and the proposer should sit down and shut up.  Which they did.  This is just one fairly extreme example but in many ways all of our decision making processes mitigate against change.  We consult widely, we need broad agreement, we take ages to change.

These can all be good things.  Taking time prevents lurching from one position to another, making snap decisions and encourage reflection and consultation.  It gives time for discussion, consideration and prayer.  These ‘safeguards’ prevent the loudest voice winning out, include a wide range of people in the process and hopefully listen to what God might be saying to the church.

They can also kill enthusiasm, limit growth and stifle innovation.

What really baffles me is when the church seems to be in agreement about the need for change but is completely unable to make that change happen.  Perhaps it is be cause too many things would need to change all at once.  Perhaps it is because we don’t have a clear idea what that change would actually look like.  Perhaps it is because we aren’t training people to be creative, risk taking leaders.

The recent Church Growth Research from the Church of England seems to paint a clear picture of the recipe for growth:

Church Growth

 

 

I’ve managed to get myself nominated to be on a United Reformed Church task group considering 20-40s.  It would seem to be ‘money where your mouth is’ time.

So, what do we need to do to become the kind of church that people in the 20-40s would engage in?  What might that kind of church look like?  What are the things that really stop people engaging with church?  Are they big philosophical issues?  Are they relational?  Are they about time and energy?

Answers on postcard, Facebook comment, tweet, email, text or more preferably over a coffee… 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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YA2014 PCard f CropSo… here are my first keynotes from URC Youth Assembly 2014.

As always, your thoughts, comments and observations are welcome…

Here are the pdfs

URCYA14 Keynote 1

“When the world was dark…” Spill the Beans

“Exile is…” comes from Rob Bell’s book Jesus Wants to Save Christians.

URCYA14 Keynote 2

“Open Arms” by Elbow

“And they asked Jesus…” Spill the Beans

“Vine grower…” Spill the Beans

URCYA14 Keynote 3

“exile is not always the darkest corner of the earth. Sometimes it is lush and plentiful, sometimes it is full of life…” Carola PerlaGibbin House

 

 

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333040_344499155563013_960489688_oOver the past few days I’ve been thinking about men.  A lot. That’s not something I do very often.  It’s also something that people in churches don’t do enough of.

This consideration of the male of the species was as part of my training for ministry and was hugely challenging.

To get us thinking we looked through a copy of The Metro and highlighted all the stories that were ‘about men’.  They were, perhaps unsurprisingly, almost completely negative.  Stories of violence and crime, cry babies and deadbeat dads, sexual and emotional disfunction and of course six pages of sport.

Men are bombarded with contradicting messages about what it means to be ‘a real man’.  The loveable rogue or criminal scum.  The protector or lout.  Compassionate and caring or soft and wimpy.

We considered some archetypes from Moore and Gillette:

We wondered which types ministers are expected to be and how much of what we have seen and experienced is the shadow sides of these ideals.  We wondered about how the move away, quite rightly, from associating the language of war and violence with faith in hymns about soldiers and armies and swords and victories has affected and perhaps feminised faith and the church?  How do we see Jesus?  As a strong man, used to felling trees and working wood, well able to survive 40 days alone in a wilderness?  Or as gentle, meek and mild?  And are those two stereotypes incompatible?

We wondered if men are trying to attain these images of masculinity without really understanding what they are trying to be, or why?

We grappled with our indoor, risk averse, cosseted society where boys only exposure to danger is on an xbox.

We explored the differences between male and female networking and support structures and asked questions around what pastoral care looks like for men who hide their emotions or find themselves coming out of a long term relationship with few friends who they feel they can talk to.

Most of all we wondered why church wasn’t dangerous anymore and what impact that has on men’s faith?

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