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One of the words so dearly loved in church is ‘relevant’. We seem to think that it would be good to be relevant, and that if we can only attain that holy state, people who are not Christians will flock to our churches.

How wrong can we be, all in one go? Relevance is a myth, one dispelled some time ago by Henri Nouwen (The Way of the Heart).  We would be far more use to God if we stopped trying to be relevant, and worked at being deep. Which leads me on to ageism. In our striving to be relevant, we impose a particular world-view on the likes/needs/proclivities of young people (loud music, late nights, flashing images etc). Which does not, of course, suit all young people.

But we impose something equally stereotypical on older people (BCP, contemplation, tradition). But there are older people who don’t want those things (many of them, including my mother in law who would have hated being made to worship in any of the above ‘oldies’ styles).

The thing is, the cynical bit of me wonders if the church is being ageist because it is cheap and easy. We have BCP, tradition is already established and contemplation is mostly free, so that’s give the older people that, because it will keep them happy, and we can go and do something more relevant :-)

How scary is that? And what will the beloved C of E do if it manages to alienate its older people – than we generally won’t have young people or older ones, and even if we do get younger ones, just to remind you, they get older too…

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The news tells us today that life in the UK is not good for children. Having just returned from mainland Europe I can only agree. This isn’t a problem that can be solved by raising families out of poverty (though that will help); it isn’t going to be solved by improved schooling (though of course education is vital to every child); this is a problem of attitude.

In Spain last week a number of complete strangers, usually men, ruffled the top of my youngest son’s head. Each time it happens I expect him to go ballistic – he hates people touching him! But somehow they seem to get away with it. Why? Because they did it unthinkingly, with confident love of a child, any child, and without any need for reaction. And youngest tolerates it quite happily.

Not many men in England would confidently touch a child they didn’t know – we have robbed them of a natural relationship with children, by suspicion and ridiculous, (almost always) unfounded fear. And we behave as though children were a problem, not a joy. The two elderly ladies who muscled in front of a family with two young children getting off the flight had tutted about the noise from the children through the journey. Then they didn’t even have the common sense to let them off a crowded plane. How daft was that?

Jesus was the exemplar of behaviour with children.  The child brought into the midst of the crowd by Jesus was not humiliated, not made to answer adult questions, just placed near to a safe man, and looked at in love. It was clearly a good place to be, or the kid would have kicked up a fuss.  

Have you been to church lately – too many children kicking up a fuss, because church is often not a good place to be! I’m sure your church is wonderful with children – I wish more people in some places  acted as though they valued children. It could change our churches.  It could even change society’s attitude to children. Showing children that we like them could make all the difference.

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Chill in the north

I’ve never seen snow from the train that spans the country – from Durham to London, houses, fields and roads are covered by inches of snow.  It seems ironic that this is the one news item uniting the country at the moment.  I’m on the way to General Synod, and bracing myself for the southern factor.  I am sure that in London papers and news broadcasts, the impression will be given that the brunt of recession is being felt in the south.

The southern factor, the bias that is shown by the media to the ‘poor’ bankers in London, and the myth that the recession is felt mostly in London, is false.  Statistics show that actually there have been more job losses, more short working weeks, more factories and businesses closing in the north east than anywhere else in the country.

And as ever, it is those who are least likely to have a buffer against recession that suffer most.   Imagine a family where both parents work, where one is told a few weeks before Christmas that they are going to have to accept a short working week, and a subsequent drop in salary.  To pay for the presents already bought on credit, the other partner takes on more work, only to be told by her company that they too are in financial meltdown.   Happy Christmas indeed.

So next time you read about the problems in the south, remember that the north had them first, and does them more comprehensively.  Not something to boast about, but something the media should remember.

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Advent

I’m not sure how one should greet another in Advent.  I can’t say ‘Happy Advent’ when I am simultaneously hoping for the immediate return of Jesus.  I mean, that event will not necessarily be happy, certainly not for goats.  ‘Blessing at Advent’ sounds naff and pretentious – I know I often do, but I do try not to…  So, some sort of greeting, of a pleasant and benign sort, be with you and yours for the purple season!

Almighty God,
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

I’ve been impressed this week by the liturgical dexterity of the Dean and my prison boss Fran, who both managed to say the Advent collect with grace and aplomb, and as though they understood every word.  Some liturgy is very difficult, and this is a piece of Cranmer’s finest.  Very magnificent, and very theologically and grammatically complex.  Not like the collect for Holy Innocents though, which is just crass and theologically up the creek (without a paddle, or any other form of implement to save it…).  I don’t know about you, but my life is far from innocent.

Heavenly Father,
whose children suffered at the hands of Herod,
though they had done no wrong:
by the suffering of your Son
and by the innocence of our lives
frustrate all evil designs
and establish your reign of justice and peace;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

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The church is full of snobs.  I don’t know why or even how we encourage it, but we clearly do.  The worst of the snobbishness presents itself in hymn choices.  In the place I work as a chaplain, I am always being asked for ‘All things bright and beautiful’, Morning has broken’, ‘Shine Jesus Shine’, ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands’.  I can’t say I enjoy any of these very much, certainly not week after week.  But music has such an important place in worship that I believe it is vital that we include music that people know, and warm to, whether thay come to church regularly or not.

This morning in church I was asked what we should sing – there had been a bit of a breakdown in communication and no-one chose the hymns until 5 minutes before the service.  Luckily, we had a musically literate vicar who covered on the organ!  When I was asked what we might sing (as Junior Church leader today) I suggested ‘All things Bright and Beautiful’, only to be asked if I was serious. One of the clergy told me how much they hated it.

The fact that the children know it, it links with their school worship, it is often known by strangers in our midst, and it makes ecological sense was irrelevant to musical snobbery. Very frustrating! The same snobbery prevails in prison, diocesan services, everywhere I seem to go. No wonder our church is so often empty of strangers in our midst.

Must stop being so cynical…  It’s summer holidays – perhaps that’s why no children other than mine were in church.  And we did sing ‘All things’; Hugh said, ‘We sing this at school’…

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