Category Archives: Uncategorized

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

vote labour

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.

Money Talks

p1020809

I’ve just watched ‘To Walk Invisible’, Sally Wainwright’s dramatization about the Bronte sisters that was on the telly over Christmas. The title refers to the way the sisters feel that they need to conceal their identity as women in order to be taken seriously as writers and get published. It set me off on a chain of thought about how far we’ve come. Or haven’t come.

On the same day, the radio news had a story about the gender pay gap. A good news story, that for women in their 20s, the gap had narrowed to 5%. Hang on, this is a good news story? That today, still, women who are just starting out in the work place are already being paid 5% less than men. It gets worse. The pay gap for older women remains stubbornly wide.

What’s going on here? The later pay gap is usually attributed to women taking time out to look after babies and small children and not being able to recover their career progression afterwards. But women at the start of their working lives? Despite equal pay for equal work, we are still being paid less. Is this about the type of work that women choose to do, the hours they choose to work? Or is this more to do with the value we place on the jobs that women do? Workplaces dominated by women tend to be in care, hospitality and retail. Jobs we need but don’t value, if pay is a measure of value. The same could be said for the things that keep a lid on women’s earnings later in life. Raising the next generation is a vital job, but mostly it’s done for free, not valued. And never mind all the other stuff like housework and caring for elderly relatives, also mainly done by women.

The way in which pay reveals the topsy-turvy values of our world was further brought home because that day was also Fat Cat Wednesday. Never heard of it? It is the day when top UK bosses (median annual salary (£4m) have earned as much in the year so far as the average worker (salary £28,000) will earn in the whole year. Lunch time on Wednesday 4th January! You will be slaving away for the rest of the year to earn what some executive put away after two and a half days on the job. We cannot seriously believe that pay like this is a true reflection of what is valuable to society, or that executives deserve to be paid in two days the same as their members of staff take all year to earn.

Perhaps it is timely that Scotland is planning on trialling a citizen’s income. A small payment to every member of society, uncoupling it from paid work. Perhaps this recognizes the intrinsic value that Christian faith sees in everyone, being made in the image of God. Will it free people up to make more fulfilling choices about work, volunteering, family life and service to society? Will it mean people will always have something coming in that they can rely on, a better solution to meeting basic need than foodbanks? Or will giving people cash in hand make them lazy and feckless, meaning they will not bother looking for work and fritter the money away on fags and booze?

Actually, even though a citizen’s income would be paid to rich and poor alike, this last idea is clearly aimed at poor people. For some reason, there appears to be a marked distaste for giving money to poor people. If you haven’t seen it, the Daily Mail issued a stark warning about the dangers of giving money to poor people in Pakistan. Apparently it’s a gross misuse of our aid budget. For a comprehensive rebuttal of the Mail and clear evidence as to why it works, please have a read of this article by my colleague Joe Ware. But anyway, giving money to poor people is a far better idea than giving money to rich people. What do poor people do with money? They spend it, of course, on gas, electricity, food, clothes, entertainment. It all goes straight back into the economy, supporting local businesses, paying wages etc. What do rich people do with money? Well, it’s only rich people who make it disappear into offshore accounts and avoid paying taxes.

Things don’t have value simply because there is a monetary value attached. The things we value in life are not usually the things we buy, but rather family, friendship, faith, love. But what we do with our money is often driven by our values, and money can take hold of our heart. ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’, Jesus warns (Matthew 6:21). I think what I’ve seen in the news this week has a lot to say about what we value in this country, much of it rather uncomfortable to hear.

Warp and Weft

weaving
This is my friend’s creation – check out her Facebook Page

As Diocesan Environmental Office for Sheffield Diocese, I went to my first DEO day yesterday, feeling very green. Green in the sense of feeling inexperienced, rather than in the environmental sense! I’ve had the role for a few months, but with only a day a week to devote to it and school summer holidays taken over by family illness (all better now) I feel I’ve hardly got started. It certainly showed up what I don’t know – do we even have a diocesan environmental policy? Any eco-congregations? Any churches or parsonages with solar panel? Lots to discover.

I was inspired too, by the stories other DEOs shared. Stories of Cathedrals with solar panels and winning eco-church awards, stories of schemes to help churches switch to green energy, stories of community environmental projects which build relationships as well as care for creation, stories of simple pledges people can make to reduce their carbon footprint. My mind is whirring. How can we bring these things to bear in Sheffield Diocese?

But most of all, the day seemed to keep coming back to one word – ‘embed’. How do we embed our creation care into our everyday church life – our liturgy, our spirituality, our mission, our social justice, our discipleship? How do we make sure it is the warp and weft of who we are, what we do?

We finished with the Rt Rev Richard Cheetham, Bishop of Kingston, and so I will too. Creation care and tackling climate change flow directly from the Gospel. Right now, creation is groaning (Romans 8:22), but through Christ, all things have been reconciled to God (Colossians 1:20). We have been given creation as a gift (Genesis 1:28-29), but it is not ours to exploit (Leviticus 19:9-10) much less to destroy. It is entrusted to us for future generations until creation is restored and renewed. As we live out our calling to be the body of Christ and to be Good News for the world, our commitment to the care of the world is central to our identity in Christ.

Rejoice in the Lord always!

rodah

This is the text of my sermon at St Nicholas, Bradfield, for Christian Aid at their Harvest Festival on 9 October 2016

Autumn is that time of year when we celebrate God’s abundance and rejoice in His blessing. I love the changing colours of this time of year, the rich reds and golds on the trees. We get to have real English plums, and the hedgerows are full of bounty too. One of our family Autumn rituals is blackberry picking. All those juicy berries in the hedge ready to pick without any of the hard work beforehand!

Mind you, I get to enjoy all the harvest without any worry or effort beforehand. I don’t have the stress of getting all my grain in before it rains, or worrying about whether my carrots and parsnips are too skinny or too knobbly for Tesco, though maybe Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall’s efforts mean our parsnips can be a little more knobbly these days. The harvest is not a foregone conclusion, which is why we’re here today to give thanks for it. Some of us are more dependent on the land than others for our livelihoods, but in this country we can be fairly confident that it will rain, it will at some point be sunny, and we have resources to make up for it if something doesn’t grow.

But I want to tell you about a part of the world where Harvest is much more tricky. Christian Aid met a woman called Rodah and her neighbours in the countryside in Kenya, where the weather is very dry. Everything needs water to grow, so when the river dries up, Rodah has to go and fetch water. She uses a container a bit like the one we use when we go camping. I took it to church full of water and asked the children to try and lift it up – far too heavy, one of them nearly fell over! But everyone guessed correctly that Rodah has to carry two of these almost as far as from Bradfield church to Sheffield city centre and back. Her water supply is six miles away. When you have to carry water like this, you can’t carry enough to make everything grow. Sometimes Rodah couldn’t grow enough food to feed her children and they would be hungry. She would have to spend money to buy food instead. So that meant there wasn’t enough money to pay for school, so her children had to stop going. Who here would be sad if they couldn’t go to school?

In Kenya, they don’t have spring, summer, autumn and winter like in England. But they do have seasons – the rainy season and the dry season. So, in the rainy season, the rain waters the land, and the water comes back in the river so it is much nearer to collect. Then, in the dry season, the river dries up. But because of climate change, the weather in Kenya is changing. The rain doesn’t come when Rodah and her neighbours expect it, so they don’t know when to plant their crops. The dry season lasts longer, and sometimes the rain doesn’t come at all. So the people living there are no longer able to grow enough food, and the six mile trip for water happens all year round, not just for a short time. That’s why Christian Aid went to meet Rodah.

Christian Aid is supporting the Anglican Development Services to work with Rodah’s neighbours to see how they can help them make their lives better. ADS gave the farmers different seeds, ones that grow better in dry conditions, so they can grow more food. The farmers were given some training too, about new, better ways to farm their land so that things would grow bigger and better. And ADS also helped the community to build a sand dam, which would trap the water in the river so that it would last through the dry season.

Now Rodah grows enough food to feed all of her family, and she has enough left over to sell in the local market. Her children are back at school – hurray! She has enough money and enough work to employ other people to work on her land too, so now they have more money. This story is repeated throughout the area, so now quite a few people have more money to spend. This means that other people can set up small businesses. There is a tailor in town, making school uniforms for all the children who can now go to school, women selling hand-woven baskets and other businesses too.

This is just one of many stories of Christian Aid helping communities build a better future, one story that we wanted to tell you so that would know where your money goes. Christian Aid made some resources to tell this Harvest story and showed them to Rodah. She burst into tears, she was so overwhelmed by the idea that people like you cared so much about her and her neighbours. When asked what message we could pass on to churches in the UK, Rodah said ‘Go and thank them very much for the water source. Because if it was not for this water source, we would not have this crop.’

Now we’re going to turn to the Bible passages that were read out earlier (Philippians 4:4-9 and John 6:25-35). The story in John’s gospel takes place just after Jesus has fed 5,000 people. The well-fed crowd seems pretty impressed by this. So impressed that they go looking for Jesus, wanting more from this miracle worker.

But Jesus is very astute. He cuts through the veneer and challenges them – are they looking for more signs of God, or more food for their bellies? Jesus knows they’ve been drawn in by their physical desires, but he wants to take them beyond this to understand that their spiritual needs require more attention.

He tells them to focus on working for food that will sustain them for eternal life, which means believing that Jesus is the one sent by God, the son of God. But they are still asking for a sign, still asking for the bread of heaven, the food of eternal life. So Jesus has to spell it out for them. He is the sign. “I am the bread of life,” he says. “Whoever come to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

We need to recognise that we are one a spiritual journey, to give attention to our spiritual life. On our spiritual journey towards God, to eternal life, Jesus is all we need. He is our guide, our light in the darkness, our strength to carry on, our shelter in the storm. He is utterly dependable, with us every step of the way. Like bread, he will sustain us.

It’s interesting that this is the text for Harvest. Superficially it looks perfect – Bread of life and all that. But just under the surface it is a little at odds to focus on a time when Jesus was speaking about food for our soul when here today we are really celebrating our physical food. Harvest is just a real world, ‘flesh’ festival. Churches are full of real, physical offerings. We are thankful that the harvest has been gathered safely in and there will be food in our bellies for the next year.

And then Jesus tells us “do not work for food that perishes, but for food that endures for eternal life.” What are we to make of this? Do we say that all that we don’t need to do anything but pray and worship , and all these other things will miraculously fall in our laps?

This is plainly stupid. Unless we sow and reap, there will be no harvest. Unless we milk the cow, there will be no ice cream at Our Cow Molly. But perhaps Jesus means us to go about our daily lives, but to do it trusting, believing in him. We all have our part to play in making the world turn, in business or public service, on the land or in the office. Perhaps Jesus means that we play our part, but do it with prayer and trusting our lives to him, and then the Bread of Life will ensure that we won’t go hungry or thirsty.

This somehow seems to make more sense, and various versions of this can be heard between Christians everywhere.

But then why is the church collecting for the foodbank? Are we saying that people need food parcels because they didn’t have enough faith? Or that good Christians don’t need food parcels? Or consider Rodah and her neighbours in Kenya. If only they’d prayed harder, then the rain would have fallen. They just need to trust in God, then there will be enough to feed their families. I don’t think any of us can accept this analysis.

We know that Jesus is the path, the way to God. There are no hoops to jump through, no exams to pass, no 11+. To know Jesus is to be reconciled with God and to be fully resourced for our spiritual journey through life. We’ve created symbols and rituals which can help us on our way, but the bottom line is that all we need is Jesus.

But God remains concerned about our physical life too. He gave the Israelites manna every day when they were lost in the desert to meet their physical needs. The passage from Philippians also tells us to let our requests be known to God in prayer and supplication.

We have to deal with this mismatch. We have the gift of eternal life. But this earthly life is precarious, many are only just holding on by their fingertips, and some do not make it. What does it mean for the church to say ‘Jesus is the Bread of Life’ while people are going hungry?

I think we know what it means. We cannot stand by. We do not stand by. That is demonstrated here by your offering of food, and hopefully later by your offering of money for Christian Aid. I just want to take you to James, who expresses what we know is true, that our faith in Jesus is revealed when it turns to action, and that without action, our faith is exposed as being no faith at all. “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:15-16).

The church is called to be Good News. Christian Aid is the outworking of that. 70 years ago, people in churches in Britain and Ireland saw the plight of displaced people in Europe after the second world war and could not stand by. Christian Aid was formed as the way for these churches to live out their calling and help these refugees however they could. Today, Christian Aid is still the agent of the church, working round the world to bring an end to poverty. We are your organisation. So that’s why we come back to the churches regularly, to ask you to continue to give to support the work we are doing in your name.

I’ve shared one of Christian Aid’s stories, and there are many more to share. Our vision is an end to poverty. Wherever we are involved, we always work through local partners. We don’t parachute in with our solutions, but ask grassroots organisations to work with those in need to bring about their own solutions to their problems. Christian Aid and the partner organisations can add value in terms in terms of knowledge or finances, but poor communities are the experts in their own situation and they can be the agents of their own change. This empowerment is the key to unlocking long term change towards that vision to end poverty.

One part of the solution in Kenya that I didn’t mention earlier involves cameras. A few of Rodah’s neighbours were given cameras to take pictures of the dam, the thriving crops and the new businesses. They documented in detail the transformation of their community brought about by simple interventions. Now these photographs are being used to show what a difference can be made. They are being shown to the Kenyan equivalent to local councillors to advocate for the same transformation in other neighbourhoods and communities. With the right help, the people in Rodah’s community were able to build the dam and transform the way they look after their land to build sustainable farms and businesses, lifting them out of poverty for the long term. But they also have the power to support their neighbours, and help them to advocate for their own solutions to poverty. To call the local leadership to account, to ask for funding from the powers that be in Kenya, so that the balance of power is shifted in favour of the poor.

I wanted to tell you about this because it shows how the effects of one project can be amplified. Christian Aid’s partner can work with a small group, but once that group is empowered to advocate for their rights and the rights of their neighbours, then the same transformation can be wrought many times over. A neglected community now has influence to challenge that injustice and bring about change. Money brings power. Christian Aid works with the poorest communities in the world, those without power, those who have a voice that doesn’t get heard. Making sure that voice is heard is one of the most important things that Christian Aid can do.

So how do we respond? What does it mean for the Church to say Jesus is the Bread of Life while people are hungry? What does it take to be a church that cares for people’s physical as well as spiritual needs? I can make a few suggestions, and I’m sure you can think of more. Please give generously to the work of Christian Aid today. It takes around £500 to construct a sand dam like the one built in Rodah’s community. Training for 5 farmers costs around £160, and seeds for 28 farmers costs about £64. Christian Aid’s work is not just about Harvest, but goes on throughout the year. If you would like your support for Christian Aid to go on throughout the year, please make a regular gift. Regular gifts really help us to plan what we can achieve in the long term. We can also amplify the voices of the poor. Partly we do that when we give to Christian Aid, and we do it again when we join in Christian Aid’s campaigning. But we can also do it when we challenge injustice and make decisions which shift the balance of power in favour of the poor, for example when we buy Fairtrade tea, coffee, chocolate, sugar. There are voices in the UK that need amplifying too. Perhaps it is time to ask your MP why 1 million people needed food parcels last year in the UK – one of the richest countries in the world?

This harvest, we give thanks that Jesus, the bread of life, gives us food for eternal life. We also give thanks that God has provided us with this harvest and takes care of our physical needs too. And our response of love and worship is to give, act and pray so that we can be good news to those who are hungry.

Pushing the Boundaries

bce_306_aw_1I know I shouldn’t do it. But sometimes I just can’t help it. I’ve been arguing with strangers on the internet. I just couldn’t let it go, so perhaps a blog is better than an incoherent rant on Facebook. I’m talking about the boundary review published this week by the boundary commission.

The headline story is that the number of constituencies, and therefore the number of MPs, is to reduce from 650 to 600 in order to ‘save money’ and to equalise the number of voters in each seat. The net effect is that most of the seats that will go are being lost in urban areas, though Wales will also lose 11 seats, going from 40 to 29 representatives in the Commons. This all seems calmly logical, but I’m fizzing rage!

For a start, the whole premise of the review is smokescreen. Six years into Tory administration, we are still being sold the line that our economy is broken and the only way to fix it is through austerity, an austerity that seems to apply to some more than others, and that we are still struggling under after six years. Austerity is a false premise to start with, and merely an excuse for the government to conduct this review. And as this blog points out, any cost saving from cutting our elected representatives has been wiped out nearly three times over by the 260 additional Tory Peers in the House of Lords.

If the genuine desire is to equalise the number of voters in each seat, then this could have been done without reducing the number of seats. The reason given for making constituencies more equal in terms of voter numbers is so that each person’s vote carries the same weight as any other. But this is never going to happen in our First Passed the Post system. My vote in a safe Labour seat or your vote in a safe Conservative seat will never carry as much weight as someone else voting in a swing marginal. Currently, a few voters in a small number of constituencies make all the difference when it comes deciding which party will form the next Government. The only way to truly make sure everyone’s vote has the same value is to bring in a proportional election system.

The rules which have governed the boundary review are also deeply flawed. It’s not clear why size of constituency should be based on number of registered voters rather than number of people living in the constituency. After all, the MP has to represent everyone living in the area, not just those registered to vote. Having decided that voter numbers is an appropriate measure, the review has been carried out according to the electoral register in December 2015.

Getting people to register to vote is not an easy job – I used to help my Dad compile the register of electors when I was a teenager and some people then were notoriously difficult to pin down. It is well known that young, transient urban populations are not fully represented on the register of electors. Note how this coincides with the group of people who are also the most disenfranchised from our democratic system. Since then, instead of introducing measures to make it easier to register and easier to vote, and helping local councils to track down all their voters, the government has made it harder to register by introducing individual instead of household registration. Estimates suggest that 1 million people were already missing off the electoral register in February 2015.

This system disenfranchises the mobile, the young and those in private rented accommodation – mainly those living in urban areas. At a time when the urban population is growing quickly, the number of registered voters in these areas is not keeping pace. A parliamentary boundary review is expected. If it takes place after millions of people are removed from the electoral register we could see the biggest transfer of parliamentary representation and political power from urban to rural areas for more than a century.

So we have a review falsely presented to us as a money saving exercise, apparently trying to improve democracy, while at the same time, literally disenfranchising millions of young people and urban dwellers. It’s no wonder that seats are being taken from urban areas because voters in these areas are disappearing down the cracks too.

The Boundary Commission is working with one hand not knowing what the other is doing. The proposals are made based on ward boundaries as of May 2015, but a previous review has just changed ward boundaries in Sheffield, so the boundaries in the constituency review are already out of date.

I did use the word gerrymandering during a rant-y phase on Facebook. The boundary commission is set up as an independent body. Perhaps it is making the best of a bad job. Urban areas tend to return Labour MPs, so it does feel like an attack on one party, but the rules of the review and other changes to the registration process have set it up to make skewed decisions. But tinkering with boundaries is never going to deliver greater democracy, and certainly not going to bring more power to the electorate. Only some version of proportional representation is going to do that. But this means that those in power will need to surrender some of it, and why on earth would they do that