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Back to School: maths, gender and clothes

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My daughter started her A-levels this week. She’s doing Maths, Further Maths, Physics, and a design/engineering course about the built environment. Or, as my son puts it, maths, super maths, science maths and engineering maths. I’ve had lots of reactions to that, and I’m interested in yours. So I’ll leave a little gap here while you react without reading ahead to what others have said…

 

There’s the usual “oh I did Maths and Physics A-level” or its opposite, a sense of awe that anyone could do Maths or Physics. But the most interesting one is something like “Good for her!” which roughly translates as “it’s really great that a girl is taking those subjects”. I can’t knock this reaction because it’s true. It is great. The maths class is reasonable evenly split between boys and girls, but there’s hardly any girls in physics and even fewer in further maths. It’s also partly why she chose physics – because fewer girls do it and she wanted to break the mould. But it’s still remarkable that in 2017 it is worthy of comment that girls are opting for maths and science courses at A-level. There really is still a lot for feminism to do.

When she was born, I cast disdain on pink clothes. I must have expressed this rather more fiercely than anticipated (there is precedent for this), because my mother-in-law stuck to it doggedly. So we ended up with a wonderful sunny array of bright yellows and oranges, with just the odd bit of beige thrown in. Sixteen years later, this issue has not gone away. There has been recent mounting pressure on retailers who separate toys by gender, with a girls’ aisle festooned in pink and sparkles while boys get primary colours and trucks. Even Lego for girls is pink. This extends to clothes, and even more worryingly, to sexualised slogans and styles for little girls. But this week (hurrah!) John Lewis has announced that it will no longer divide its store into ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ sections. Rather, it will have one section for children’s clothes, as body shapes between girls and boys are no different until puberty. It is also launching a new ‘gender-neutral’ range of children’s clothes.

The reaction to this news has been astonishing! While lots of people are supportive, others are threatening to boycott John Lewis for (wait for it!) political correctness gone mad. This article from the Christian Institute is the one that drove me to my keyboard for this blog. No-one is making boys wear dresses, though they can if they want. But it is about making sure girls have the freedom of choice to wear clothes featuring dinosaurs, cars, space aliens and football without having to shop in the boys’ section.

Does this all really matter? Here’s what Let Clothes be Clothes had to say. ‘When we looked at tops sold in Mothercare, there were over 20 STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Maths) themes sold as “boys t-shirts” and not one for girls. The idea that boys and not girls will be more inclined towards Science themes is harmful to girls AND boys, and is insulting to all the Women who have forged a path in STEM fields.’

And here’s a cautionary tale about why we need women in engineering. When airbags were first designed and fitted to cars, they had only been tested on man-sized crash test dummies. Consequently, when they were deployed, women and children were at risk of injury from the airbag. This didn’t change until 2011, so watch out if your car is older than that!

The gender gap is still wide open (along with many other gaps). I’m sure you haven’t forgotten the massive pay gap between the highest paid men and women at the BBC. For the rest of us, the gap in earnings between men and women means that once we get to Friday 10th November (equal pay day) women will effectively be working for free. This is the same as last year, so we’ve made no progress in a year. I’m proud of my daughter for her ambition to break gender constraints and stereotypes. We need her ambition, because we’ve still got a long way to go.

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Lifting the gagging law?

Bearing WitnessThis tweet today from Christian Aid has gladdened my heart. It looks like there is finally some action to change the Lobbying Act, which effectively silences charities from ‘political’ campaigning in the 12 months before a general election, while doing nothing to stop the crushing influence of money and big business on government. I know, it’s odd what makes me happy!

More than 100 charities have signed a letter to civil society minister Tracey Crouch, calling for the Lobbying Act (known as the gagging law) to be overhauled. They call it a “confusing and burdensome” piece of legislation that “weakens democracy, rather than strengthens it” because those representing the marginalised and vulnerable have been “silenced”.

I’ve been on the receiving end of the confusion. In the run-up to the election in June, Christian Aid picked its way through the act and ended up advising members of staff that even their person social media accounts shouldn’t endorse a political party if it could be construed as speaking for Christian Aid. I looked at my Facebook page. It was also the run up to Christian Aid Week and the only posts there were about Christian Aid or the Labour party. For the sake of a fine, I had to choose. So, for the duration of the election I chose politics, feeling, rightly or wrongly, that whoever was in government would have more impact than me on the lives of the poorest wherever in the world they might be. But I was left unable to talk about or promote the fundraising I was doing for Christian Aid Week on my personal threads. I’ve only got a reach of 400 on Facebook, so I’m not making that much impact, but multiply that across all my colleagues in any charity who use social media and suddenly the impact is significant.

So the act is messy. But why should charities meddle in politics, rather than getting on with their core business of helping people? Actually, I believe that their core business of helping people is a political act, because it says that people are worth more than the system or situation that has left them in need. But above and beyond that, charities allow the voices of the marginalised and vulnerable to be heard. They have a unique perspective of how policies have an impact on those they are trying to help.

I’ve just spent the weekend at Greenbelt with Christian Aid. While we’ve been there, we’ve been talking about climate change. Actually, it turns out that the rest of the world was also talking about climate change, or trying not to talk about climate change. I didn’t really pick up the news about the flooding in Houston, Texas until I got home. But unprecedented catastrophic weather is a feature of the new world we are creating by pumping carbon into the atmosphere.

At Christian Aid we talk about climate change because droughts, floods and typhoons devastate lives and livelihoods. The work we do to help the poorest communities build their own routes out of poverty is stymied by the changes in the climate caused by the richest countries in the world. Those with the least responsibility for the change feel its impact the hardest and have the fewest resources to cope. If we are going to be true to our ambition to end poverty, then we also have to tackle climate change.

This weekend we’ve been focused on financial institutions especially banks. But we also include government policy and spending in our campaigning. We’ve campaigned to ask the Government to stop burning coal to generate electricity. We want better plans outlining how we are going to reach UK carbon reductions targets. We’d like to see investment in renewable energy technology. All of these asks are political. Each political party approaches them differently, and some not at all. But the Lobbying Act closes down discussion of each party’s offering, leaving Christian Aid to rely on general statements without serious discussion of the issues at stake.

It is not enough for charities to provide whatever services, help or development that are within their remit if they cannot also work to change what causes the problem in the first place. There will be no end to poverty unless the underlying structural causes of poverty are changed.

Here’s an example. We have great debates while we are at Greenbelt, late at night sitting outside our tents. This year we had one about tax credits – complex, unwieldy, but are they really good or bad? Yes, they redistribute money back to those who need it most, putting money in the pockets of the poor. Yet at what cost? The system has become more complex so that work makes you better off, but this leaves people confused, struggling to access what they are owed, and afraid of making mistakes and ending up with large sums to repay. But it has also failed to address the underlying injustice of poverty wages. People have more money, so wages do not have to increase. Tesco can turn a tidy profit and still pay workers a pittance because they are topped up by tax credits and so people can get by. And thus, the tax payer funds Tesco’s profit. I should say, Tesco are not the only culprit, just an obvious one.

Systemic, structural, political changes are necessary to solve ‘bigger than self’ problems like poverty and climate change. It is not rational that charities are not able to speak out about the conditions that create the situations that they are working to relieve. Shelter should be able to campaign for better housing policy and speak out when current policy is unjust. Food banks can see why people are going hungry and need emergency food and need to be able to call out the ideology that puts people in poverty. If we cannot do this, we collude with the causes of injustice and become part of the system that causes the poverty in the first place.

The space available for civil society to act is being squeezed. Dissent is part of democracy, to curtail it is to curtail our freedom. Yet that is what is happening. Public spaces are being privatised, the right to strike is being made more difficult, and in some professions removed altogether, registering to vote has become more complicated. The Lobbying Act is just another way for power to silence its critics, and it’s high time we broke that silence.

This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein

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I did some teaching for trainee Lay Readers in Sheffield Diocese recently, about discipleship and our care for the environment. The Assistant Principal, Bill Goodman, wondered if I’d read Naomi Klein’s book. Well, to be honest, I’d based most of my talk on her book! I’d thoroughly recommend it, and to help persuade you to read it, here is his book review.

Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (London: Penguin, 2014)

Naomi Klein is not for the faint hearted: an uncompromising thinker and activist, a compelling communicator. She is clear that we are now in the final decade of opportunity to avoid catastrophic climate change. She sees much of our current environmental crisis as driven by the rapacious demands of unregulated capitalism – while being equally scathing about the destructive effects of some centralised socialist regimes. The key problem she attacks is what she terms ‘extractivism’ – a desire to extract resources endlessly from a finite planet, while also disregarding their polluting outcomes.

The book is in three major parts. The first section, ‘Bad Timing’, considers how our current climate crisis has developed since the industrial revolution, and how it has accelerated in recent years, fuelled by free-market fundamentalism. She sees an urgent need to rebuild the public sphere (health care, affordable homes, flood defences, public transport), with those who cause pollution – particularly fossil fuel companies and users – paying their fair share of the cost. I found much of this section familiar, but brought to life by her gift for researching and recounting true stories from today’s world which bring the issues vividly to life.

Her second section, ‘Magical Thinking’, critiques some recent proposals for solutions to the climate change crisis: miraculous scientific interventions (such as seeding our atmosphere with sulphates to dim the sun), philanthropic billionaire ‘messiahs’ (such as Richard Branson), and market-based ‘green business’ solutions. She is scathing about all these options, particularly the way some environmental groups have been co-opted and neutralised by the big-business groups they are seeking to work with.

The final section, ‘Starting Anyway’, looks for effective responses to the crisis. One is to invest our savings and pension funds not in oil and coal, but in firms that positively promote the transition away from carbon to renewable energy – so her antipathy towards our current model of capitalism is not total: she can work within the system to some extent. In addition, she champions the direct action of ‘blockadia’ – passive resistance to fossil fuel extraction and other polluting industries, particularly by the local communities most affected. These need to move beyond ‘NIMBY’ism to a wider perspective: ‘Not In My Back Yard – Nor In Anyone Else’s’. Her inspiring stories often focus on indigenous groups disputing land claims with mining companies in USA and her native Canada (also Nigeria and Ecuador); these stories have less immediate resonance in our corner of the world, although they might inspire us to support the groups described and to think about action in our own context.

For Klein, solutions need to be both top-down and bottom-up. She is convinced that only significant intervention and regulation by governments (of the kind seen in the USA in the 1960s and 70s) can turn the tide, with a kind of Marshall Plan for the planet. But where is the political will to be found? It needs to come from ordinary people, leadership bubbling up from below, with social media helping spread its reach. She draws inspiration and hope from grassroots groups and people movements, often arising from particular crises (such as the Occupy movement after the 2008 financial crash); mass movements are needed now, demanding radical action and initiating it at local levels. I find myself wondering whether this will be enough; I hope so – what is the alternative? She sees one striking example of how this was achieved in the past, in the historic movement to abolish slavery. Despite mockery, outrage and fierce resistance from the powerful, a key foundation of the global economic order – slavery – was eventually abolished (although sadly, with significant compensation paid to the slave owners).

Klein expresses no overt faith stance; but a number of her concerns resonate with mine as a Christian. When so many politicians today resort to self-serving pragmatism as the only way to motivate us, Klein’s moral conviction and passion for social justice is a refreshing change – she sees it as morally self-evident that we need to reduce the glaring inequalities that marginalise many and disfigure our world. The world’s poorest people are those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The urgency of this task for our day which she conveys reminds me of the Kairos Document’s challenge to apartheid at a pivotal moment in South Africa. For Naomi Klein, the climate change crisis is an opportunity to transform and reinvent our cultural values, and so our world; to embrace a worldview of ‘interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy’ (p.462). An inspiring vision, and a tall order to achieve. For me, that will take grace, courage and perseverance which we need God to nurture within us and draw out of us.

Bill Goodman, August 2016

Food insecurity – Britain or Burkina Faso?

Screen Shot 2017-06-30 at 16.54.20It might disappear from the headlines, but the food bank story is not going away. A new report has come out about food banks – this one is a survey carried out by Oxford University to find out some of the circumstances of people who go to food banks.

Among other things, the research found that:

78% of households were classified as severely food insecure – that is to say they had missed meals, or not eaten at all (sometimes for days at a time) because they did not have enough money for food, and this was an experience repeated every month or nearly every month in the last year.

50% of households experienced other forms of destitution, such as not being able to afford essential toiletries or not having enough money to heat their homes for at least four days in one month.

These circumstances are shocking to read. But what really struck me was the language used to describe them. People are going to food banks because they are destitute. Just pause for a moment. What does that word conjure up for you? To me it feels like a word we should have left behind with Dickens, paupers in Victorian London about to be cast into the workhouse. But in Britain today, there are families who are that close to the edge that we describe them as destitute.

And then there’s the phrase food insecurity. Usually I encounter that phrase when I’m at work at Christian Aid, talking about farmers in Burkina Faso, or those caught up in the famine in East Africa right now. Communities who don’t have enough margin of resilience to be sure they will always have enough to eat. And yet households in the UK are food insecure. Because of chronically low incomes, or unpredictable incomes, they do not have the resources to ensure that they have enough food. A feature of the developing world can be found in the fifth richest country in the world.

The use of food banks continues to rise. In the last year, the Trussell Trust gave out 1.18 million food parcels, and they are just one of many providers. Meanwhile, calls to implement policies that might address the problem and reduce food bank use are ignored. The people I know running food banks all say they are a sticking plaster measure. They do not provide a long-term solution, just a stop gap in an emergency. But the longer they exist, they more they feel normal, and the more they unintentionally collude with government policies that have created the need in the first place.

So are food banks here to stay? Are we happy with that? Is food charity part of the welfare state now? What has happened to our social contract where we expect to be caught by the safety net in times of need because we have pooled our resources through our tax and national insurance? Churches and other groups have seen the need and responded with compassion, but you are out of luck if that compassion hasn’t extended to your town or local community. Is that fair or equitable?

Before we decide that charity and food hand-outs are a legitimate solution for the UK, it’s worth going back to places that have long-term experience of food insecurity. What are the solutions in Burkina Faso or to famine in East Africa? Food hand-outs are absolutely only an emergency response. In the long-term, sustainable solutions are needed so that those experiencing food insecurity become food secure. Solutions that include making sure people have an adequate income, and a reliable income. Income might be unpredictable because of climate change in Burkina Faso and because of benefit delays in the UK, but food hand-outs are not the adequate response to either.

Food banks are one big, obvious symptom of life in austerity Britain, where there are jobs, but they are low-paid and insecure, there are benefits, but they are deliberately delayed, where support for the disabled is rationed and where debt is on the rise. This is why people are destitute and food insecure, and a food parcel is not going to change that.

Environment and the election

voteHere is a very simple, very quick, discourse analysis on the Labour and Conservative manifestos, with regards to their position on the environment and climate change. It is not in depth, because contrary to appearance, I do have a life and I don’t have time to do more!

Basically I searched for the word ‘environment’ and the phrase ‘climate change’ in each manifesto. This is a pretty crude measure and inevitably misses stuff. But you do get a flavour of the importance of this issue to each party relative to the other. It tells you more about principles and priorities than policy detail. But that in itself is insightful.

One more proviso. When you search for ‘environment’ you get other stuff like ‘the business environment’ or ‘the school environment’ so I discounted those. But that’s also way I haven’t done a word count on ‘environment’.

The first thing that appears in the Conservative manifesto when you search ‘environment’ is support for fracking, or shale gas extraction, as they call it. Then there is some discussion about the landscape and environment in the UK countryside, looking at agri-business and environment, hedges and dry stone walls. The Conservatives give their support for SDGs (sustainable development goals) with regard to sustainability and and preventing environmental degradation.

The phrase ‘climate change’ comes up 5 times. The Conservatives are leading the way in international action, though there’s no detail about how. There is discussion about what they have done in the past – the Climate Change Act and the Paris Agreement but no detail plans for the future.

The first thing that appears in the Labour manifesto when you search ‘environment’ is its own chapter heading. It is a key point that the Labour manifesto has a whole section devoted to the environment, signifying its importance. Then the manifesto moves onto plans to incorporate environmental protections in business, introducing a duty to environment not just share holders. It talks about clean energy, securing environmental protection when we leave EU, investment in a low-carbon economy, getting people out of their cars, sustainable farming and fishing, a policy based on science, and support for the SDGs.

The phrase ‘climate change’ comes up 11 times. The first mention is to introduce a ban on fracking. The manifesto talks about how there needs to be a transition, to move to clean fuel and renewable fuel. There is still, however, a commitment to off shore oil/gas.

Finally a search on the phrase ‘low-carbon’ reveals 5 uses in the Labour manifesto and 0 in the Conservatives’. Likewise a search for ‘renewable’ has the same result. You can try your own searches on the issues important to you.

Download the Conservative Party Manifesto.

Download the Labour Party Manifesto.

Why I’m voting Labour

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Jesus told a story about a group of people on zero-hours contracts. Well, not exactly, I’m paraphrasing, but I think this captures it.

Anyway, this group of people would turn up at their Agency first thing in the morning, hoping there would be work for them. One morning, very early, Mrs Merlot from the fruit farm also came into the Agency, looking for workers. She arranged for 10 of them to come and work for her. “It’ll be hard work,” she said, “and a long day, 8 ‘til 6, with an hour for lunch. But I’ll pay you a proper wage for the day, £8.45 an hour is the Living Wage, so that’s £76.05 for the day.”

The workers agreed, and went off in her mini-bus to work. The rest of the workers stayed at the office. They didn’t dare go home, in case someone else came in looking for workers, but they didn’t know how long they would be hanging around waiting.

At 9 o’clock, Mrs Merlot came back. “Everything is coming ripe at the same time,” she said. “I need another bus-full of workers. Same deal as before.” “You mean £8.45 an hour,” asked one of the people waiting. “No, £76.05 for the day, until 6pm, enough to live on,” she replied.

So 10 more people agreed to the terms and were driven off in the minibus.

At noon, and again at 3pm, Mrs Merlot came back again, in need of another 10 workers to come and work in the fields until 6pm, again offering £76.05 for the day’s work. Finally, she returned just before 5pm.

“Are you lot still here,” she said to the raggle-taggle bunch of dejected workers who had waited all day in vain for some hours work. “Have you had nothing better to do? Never mind, I’ve still got work to be done. Get in, and you can work the last hour for me, just like the others.”

The last 8 people climbed aboard the minibus and soon arrived at the field, which was full of people picking fruit.

When the rest of the workers learned that the last 8 people would be getting paid the same amount for working an hour as those who had worked all day, there was outrage. At 6pm, when the workers came to be paid, someone who had been there since 8am made his point.

“This is totally unfair. We’ve been slaving away all day in the field, and now we discover that we’re not getting any more than this lot, who only turned up for an hour!”

“Have you got a problem with that?” asked Mrs Merlot. “You agreed terms, and came to work on that basis. I’ll pay you everything we agreed. The worker deserves a decent wage for her or his time. It’s up to me what I choose to pay, it’s my business.”

Perhaps this is really a story about eternal life, a gift whether you are reconciled to God near the beginning or near the end of your life. But it is told as a picture of the kingdom of heaven, and I believe we should be in the business of bringing kingdom values to bear in this world and not just the next. After all, we do pray, ‘your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven’.

It was important to the owner of the farm that the workers were paid what was just and right for a day’s work. Without a proper wage, workers cannot pay for their homes, food, and family responsibilities. Wages today don’t seem to be right or just. That’s why I’m an advocate for the Living Wage, so people have enough to live on. And that’s also why we need to stop casual labour becoming standard practice. Zero-hours contracts for people who are looking for regular work; counting people as self-employed to avoid holiday and sick pay; the gig economy, where income is unpredictable; and care workers not paid for their travel time. All these things make work insecure, and therefore make life insecure.

And the owner of the farm was also very clear that she would decide what to do with her money. In the kingdom of heaven, she decided to pay it to her workers. Meanwhile on earth, less and less money is being paid in wages, and more and more is being paid out to the holders of capital. In the US, since the mid 70s, wages as a percentage of national income have fallen 7%, while corporate profits have risen 7% (see this article).  Across the world, the same pattern is seen, the ‘labour share’ of national income has been falling. A falling labour share implies that even though workers are more productive and make more money for the businesses they work for, these gains no longer get returned to workers in the form of rises in pay. Instead, an ever larger share of the benefits of growth is given to owners of capital. Even among wage-earners the rich have done vastly better than the rest: the share of income earned by the top 1% of workers has increased since the 1990s even as the overall labour share has fallen (more here).

It’s not always easy to articulate the relationship between faith and politics. When I read the Bible, it’s easy to see God’s concern for the poor and the values of justice shining out. But it’s less obvious whether this translates into a right-wing or left-wing approach to achieving those aims. It’s also possible to look at earthly versions of these approaches, that is, to see whether the actual political parties are concerned for the poor and for justice. To me, this also demonstrates an obvious answer, but others see it differently . So I was looking for a more fundamental expression of what feels incontestable in my core, but isn’t always easy to express. So here it is, for me, a Biblical model of why, as a Christian, I am and could only be a Labour voter. Check out the Labour Party manifesto on a fair deal at work.

The Democratic Deficit

westminster.jpgWe’re proud of our democracy in this country. We’re so proud of it, we like to march round the globe implementing it in other countries, and standing in judgement making sure other elections are free and fair. But we need to talk about our own democratic deficit.

First of all, we need to talk about Tory election fraud. Following the 2015 General Election, the Electoral Commission found the Conservative Party guilty of election fraud and fined it the maximum penalty available for the offences – £70,000. Currently, 14 police forces are investigation 30 individuals for criminal offences relating to the last election. Up to two dozen Tory MPs face criminal charges, and if found guilty could face a year in prison, and the results in their constituency declared invalid. Before parliament was dissolved, the Tories had a working majority of 17, which would have been wiped out if 24 seats were overturned. How convenient that another election has been called, ruling out that eventuality. And how many of those MPs who are under investigation are running for their seats again? As the police have not released names, we don’t know.

I’ve written before about the proposed boundary changes, which I’ve dared to label gerrymandering. These changes have been given the gloss of ‘saving money’ by reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600, and a further sheen of ‘fairness’ and ‘better representation’ by equalising the size of constituencies. But a population represented by fewer people is not going to be better represented. And the process of the boundary changes has not been fair by any means. Instead of counting the number of people in an area, the changes are based on the number of electors, even though MPs represent everyone, not just voters. Despite best efforts, the electoral role is never complete. People move, other people hide, and transient or wary populations are higher in deprived urban areas, and amongst the young and minority ethnic communities. All more likely to be Labour voters.

And, lets face it, the government hasn’t made the ‘best effort’ to make sure the electoral roll is complete. In fact, it has made it harder for people to register, changing the system so that households or institutions cannot register people en masse. Universities can no longer register students, each student has to register her- or himself. And while universities like those in Sheffield, have worked hard to get students to register, this isn’t universal.

So the new boundaries have been drawn up on inaccurate electoral numbers, disenfranchising the urban poor by reducing their representation, further discouraging them from the ballot box and the register, making any future revisions of the boundary likely to go against these same communities. These changes haven’t come in yet, they are out for consultation. But when I went to the website to raise my objections, none of my objections above were deemed valid, because I wasn’t allowed to object to the process of decision making, only the technicalities of where the lines were drawn on the map.

This nicely sets the scene for the General Election. The election that Theresa May told us would never happen. But one that she has seen fit to call as exam season begins, to take place at the end of term. By the time the election comes, the student population will have dispersed, leaving concentrated urban areas and becoming spread out throughout the country, diluting the power of the student vote. Yes, this matters to me, because I live in a constituency with the highest population of students in the country, whose vote really matters for the party I want to elect. But actually, this timing makes it tricky for everyone, and removes more people from the electoral process. How can any party successfully canvass when lots of the people who will vote in an area are not there, but are away at university? And come the end of term, even if students don’t go home, they will still move to next year’s digs or halls. They will live where they are not registered, and be registered where they no longer live. How many will make the effort to go back and vote, or find out whether they can re-register in time? The democratic deficit grows again.

Because, yes, people should take responsibility to register, and use their vote wisely. But they don’t – the local council by-election in Sheffield last week had a turn-out of 24%. This matters to society, because 76% of that population didn’t think their vote mattered. Are we happy to have created a society where 76% of people think it is ok not to have a voice, or at least, not one that anyone will listen to?

If we want a fair and democratic society, we should be doing all we can to help people participate, removing barriers, not creating them. Not everyone is fully up to speed with the process. Certainly not the group of students I met on the doorstep who thought the election didn’t apply to them because they were under 21. Or the voters who are worried about getting the answer wrong, believing that there can be a wrong answer in an election. Or the people who believe their vote doesn’t count because no-one listens to them anyway. (See the views expressed here.)

We shouldn’t just dismiss these concerns. Participation is more important than sneering or writing people off. There are so many people who don’t know who to vote for because there is no medium to access the information they need in a straightforward, unbiased way. Newspapers and TV put their own spin on the stories, only telling the stories that they choose to share, with comment and analysis that fits their own world view. Witness the local election, where UKIP’s losses have been reported everywhere, while the Green party’s gains are an after-thought at best and totally absent in most places, even though neither party runs any of the councils in question and the one with the least coverage has the most MPs. Getting beyond the sound bites to the truth requires commitment and dedication. But we want everyone to be informed and to vote accordingly, not just the tedious political activists like me.

Democracy isn’t just about holding regular elections and being able to vote in secret without a gun to your head. It means transparency and accountability. It requires free and independent media that call governments to account and speak truth to power instead of being the powerful. It means democratic processes are run independently of those in power, and those who break the rules are held to account. We should be doing all we can to include as many people as possible to play their part in democracy, making it easy, not difficult, sharing responsibility and not just shrugging our shoulders when people don’t engage. Our democracy has a long way to go.

Putting my head above the parapet

sheffield-cathedral-external-viewI don’t usually get into church politics on here. I prefer to stick to the real thing. While we in the church are arguing with each other, we are not building the kingdom. We are not being salt and light, or good news, or transforming lives, communities or the world we live in.

But here in Sheffield there is a church political storm going on all around me, and I (inspired by a friend at Synod last week) don’t think I can be silent any longer.

I am deeply conflicted by the appointment of Philip North to be Bishop of Sheffield. I haven’t yet met him, but from his acceptance speech, he seems to be a lovely man, full of grace and with a passion for justice. He brings a vision for the poor and the left behind on ‘outer estates’ and those who have worked with him say nothing but good things. His gifts and his vision will be a great fit for this Diocese, which includes not just Sheffield, but also Rotherham, Doncaster and the surrounding countryside out to Goole.

But all this comes attached to a man whose theological conviction means he cannot ordain women as priests or bishops. I cannot pretend to understand this position. The way I see it, we were all created in the image of God – there is something of the divine creator in every human. And when we were lifted out of the mess humans created for themselves by Jesus’s sacrifice once and for all, we were all redeemed and made one in Christ. For there is no longer any male or female.

It is taking the world and the church a long time to catch up with this Biblical principle, but we are slowly moving towards justice and equality. It seems to me (and this is just my interpretation) that justice and equality is at the heart of Bishop Philip’s ministry and his concern that we need to listen to the voices of the poor. And now I really come into conflict, because gender inequality lies at the heart of social and economic inequality. Women are paid, on average, 19.2% less than men. Women make up a higher proportion than men of those living in poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports that Three-quarters of single parent households live below the minimum income standard, 90% of which are headed up by women. And recent changes to the benefits and tax system, in the name of austerity, have been unfairly shouldered by women, who have taken 85% of the hit.

A vision for equality cannot be separated from a vision for men and women’s equality. I’m very interested to know how Bishop Philip brings these two things together. Because however it is dressed up in theological conviction, saying that women can’t take on certain roles in the church is not equality.

So I’m waiting. Waiting for Bishop Philip to bring his gifts, wondering how it will play out for us here in Sheffield Diocese. I’m not here asking Bishop Philip to withdraw because the church has decided this is how it’s going to be. Not just the specific selection process that chose Bishop Philip, which has its flaws, but we have to trust God was there in that process. But the wider decision made by the whole church in 2014 when provision for making women bishops was agreed.

The situation is not as people outside the church see it. The Sheffield Telegraph ran a double page spread asking if women should be ordained priests or bishops. It is a very great shame if people think we are still debating this question. We’re not. The Church of England has decided that women should be ordained as priests and bishops. This is no longer in question. It reflects badly on the church that people think it is.

The conflict we find ourselves in now is due to the choices made in July 2014 about how to move forward with respect to those who don’t agree with the decision that women should be priests and bishops. There are five guiding principles, but broadly I will split them into two.

Firstly, anyone who ministers in the Church of England has to accept this decision and uphold and respect everyone with the office of priest or bishop regardless of gender. Bishop Philip has made it pretty clear that he does this and will continue to do so.

But secondly, if your theological conviction means you are working with this even though you don’t agree, you can still be part of the Anglican family. This is not least in part because large sections of the Anglican communion haven’t reached the decision we have made in England, but we still want to remain in communion with them. If we’re going to extend this courtesy to ministers in the church round the world, then we’re surely going to extend it to ministers in the church in England. This isn’t just about ‘tolerating’ people with different views, but ensuring that everyone’s needs are met and that we can all flourish. And all orders of ministry are open to all equally.

These are the decisions that we made as a church at General Synod in July 2014. Perhaps we didn’t think through the consequences then (the current furore suggests we didn’t) but the inevitable outworking of them is that men can and will be appointed as bishops who hold a theological view that doesn’t include women priests or bishops. They will have to work with and uphold the ministry of the women that they work with, respect their office and support their vocation. And those with a different point of view will have to extend the same in return.

So, if we don’t like it, we will have to go back to that decision which paved the way for women to become bishops in the first place. If we undid that decision (I don’t even know if it’s possible as I know nothing about church law) then would the whole provision for women to become bishops be unravelled? Or if we make a new decision and decide that other theological points of view cannot be held within the Church of England, are we prepared to leave behind those in our midst and those around the world who will not follow?

Bishop Philip’s appointment is part of our decision to live together. We like to talk about disagreeing well, and being a model for how to do so for others, so let’s try that for a change. If we don’t like the decision we’ve made to live together, then we need to move the debate way beyond women’s ministry to the unity of the whole Anglican community and the worldwide church. If you think that, as an issue of justice, we need to go there, then you need to say so.

Clean up our cash

I believe this is my 100th blog post! And to mark this momentous occasion, I’m hosting guest blogger, Hannah Seekings. She’s been volunteering in the Christian Aid office I work in, and was inspired by our campaigns training session on climate change.

big-shift-eve

On the first Wednesday in February we met together to hear about “The Big Shift Campaign” from Luke Harman who is part of Christian Aid campaigns team.

The evening started by discussing all the success that we have achieved together so far. Christian Aid is part of a movement which has been advocating for change to be made to help stop global warming getting worse and slow the effects of climate change. Together we have made an impact. The UK government announced that by 2025 it would phase out the use of coal-fired power stations. We also witnessed the historic signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015 where countries from across the world came together and agreed to limit the global temperature rise to only 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Furthermore, Luke mentioned how the UK and its actions have been mentioned in the Washington Post, showing that the UK is a real influencer and leading the way for a change in how we approach the response to climate change. There is such a great momentum for this issue and therefore we should be encouraged and keep pursuing change.

The next section of the evening we talked about the effects of climate change and how we can prevent the financing of the fossil fuel industries. We watched an insightful short video, which I’d encourage you to watch.

As many of you know, the climate is changing and this is greatly influenced by the burning of fossil fuels in industrialised countries. We believe that we must act in order to protect our planet. There should be a shift from industires such as coal, oil and gas to renewable energy sources such as wind farms and solar panels and move towards a zero-carbon world. However, to achieve this we need a Big Shift in the way our economy works. Money is a key factor in influencing whether we lock ourselves into more fossil fuel dependence or build a better world that we know is possible. The UK is a global financial hub. Shifting finance in the UK can create a huge momentum for global change.

“We all want to save for a rainy day but what happens if we are fuelling the storm”

The money that we keep in our banks in the UK collectively is trillions of pounds and is invested into a wide range of things. This includes investing in coal plants and subsiding fossil fuels. Christian Aid has written a detailed report about this titled which you can read here. It summarises why Christian Aid feels that asking banks to take responsibility is a good idea. It looks at individual banks, their policies on the environment and their strategies to help phase out the funding of fossil fuels.

High Street banks and pension fund managers rely on our customers to make a profit. We need to make sure that they use our money in a way that which helps create and sustain a low carbon economy. We need to do this as soon as possible.

Many banks, corporations and companies signed up to the “Paris Pledge for Action”. This is an outward sign that they support the objectives of the Paris Agreement and will actively help to achieve this.

Christian Aid wants to know what steps the banks are taking to achieve their Paris Pledge. Many banks are still financing the building of coal power stations which lock countries into a high carbon infrastructure. Furthermore, they are still financing oil and gas companies much more than they are renewable sources. To add to all this, many banks are reluctant to set up measurable targets to phase out support for fossil fuels. Christian Aid has focused on 4 major banks; Barclays, HSBS, Lloyds Banking Group and RBS, who we have researched and don’t think are doing enough to commit to helping reduce global temperatures.

So. What next? What can we do about this?

Luke laid out 3 easy steps that we can do to campaign as a response to this knowledge:

Step 1: Spread the word – strike up a conversation with your friends, neighbours, colleagues, people in your church about what they think about climate change. Give them a campaigns pack and invite them to explore this issue some more. Explain to them why this issue it matters and why you want to do something about it.

Step 2: Ask people to take action – invite them to come to your next campaigns evening, ask them to join you in writing a letter to your MP, be bold and encourage them to get on board with you!

Step 3: Take it to the banks – go down into your local branch and ask to speak to the manager and ask questions about their environmental policies and how they plan to phase out investments in fossil fuels, alternatively go in with a letter in hand addressed to the manager with this information. Even better, ask a few people to come with you.

We have lots of resources to help you contact our banks and keep them accountable. Be that writing a letter, or going into your local branch. What these banks do with private finances is the public’s business. Are they helping to preserve God’s creation?! Are they doing enough to reduce climate change?

Find out more here. If you are inspired to campaign to help clean up our cash and help reduce climate change then email campaigns@christian-aid.org and they can send over relevant resources and information to help you help the world.

You can make a difference

wind-turbines17On this day of all days, when the unthinkable is about to happen, it is easy to be overwhelmed. The complexities of leaving the EU, the absurdity of the notion ‘President Trump’ coming true, the enormity of global climate change with a climate change denier about to take office. How does an individual have influence in the world in this environment? Is there anything that I can do to make any sort of difference?

Small effort, big gain

Well, it occurs to me that there is one thing you can do which will have repercussions every day for the rest of your life. (Unless you move house, but you’ll be able to do it again with the same effect.) I can’t believe it took me so long to do it. And it was so easy!

What what what!? Stop teasing! What is this magical thing? (I suspect the picture gave it away!)

Change your energy provider. Change to a renewable energy provider. You could choose a green tariff, or better still, an energy company that produces its own green energy. Electricity from wind, solar or hydro and even (in some cases) green gas.

Once you’ve done it, every time you switch your lights on you know that you are spending money on a company that is investing in our future, not polluting it. You are no longer giving money to people who want to drill in the arctic and who will carry on burning fossil fuel until Bangladesh is under the sea.

And it really is easy. You can just choose a green energy company and go with them. You might want to do some price comparisons. You could investigate and compare tariffs on the internet by yourself, though that is a bit more hard work. Or, as I write, you can sign up as an individual to the Big Church Shift. A procurement company working on behalf of a group of charities including Tearfund and Christian Aid will find the best tariff for you, and facilitate the switch for you. And yesterday someone showed me another company, Big Clean Switch, who work with Ecotricity, Good Energy and Bulb and will do the comparison for you.

I went with the Big Shift. It was painless. I can’t understand why I didn’t do it before! Now Bulb is our energy provider and we’re paying less than before, although we are still in the early stages of settling down what our actual usage is.

Taking it further

And if you are attracted by the idea of taking your money away from fossil fuels and spending it on renewable technology, you can take the idea much further. It’s called divestment, and it can be applied to any company which invests money in other companies. Quite often it’s your money they are investing.

Ever thought about your pension? That money that you are saving up to provide for your future? Not much point in giving it to people who are damaging the earth and spoiling the future. So ask your pension provider whether they are investing in fossil fuels or clean energy. And if you can, ask them to invest for the future, not the dirty energy that belongs to the past.

Or your bank. High street banks are still investing in and giving loans to fossil fuel businesses in far greater measure than to green energy. Ask them to stop. There’s a really handy email campaign up and active here. Ask them to plan for the future and build a better world. We will all be glad they did when the fossil fuel business realises it cannot extract and burn all the oil it has in reserve and the market collapses. Much like it has already done in many countries for coal.

You could even move your money yourself. This one requires a bit more thought and effort. But you save in an ethical fund or with an ethical bank. Maybe the words ethical and bank could never go together, but you could start by looking at Triodos and see what you think.

So, on a day such as today, when it seems that the world is becoming a scarier place, it’s a good day to do a small thing which will go on making a difference every day, long after Trump has left the White House.