Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

If you've stumbled upon here randomly, then I suggest you check out my biography and other pages.

Please Note: This site, and the social networking profile pages connected with it, reflect my personal interests & views which do not necessarily represent those of organisations I am affiliated / associated with.


Keyboard Warriors

If anyone has been following UK-based coverage of the Olympics, you will be aware of the furore in the media today over the verbal abuse sent via Twitter to Tom Daley. The abuser, '@rileyy_69', has since been arrested and held by police for questioning and placed firmly within the media spotlight. 

I understand the police action to an extent because he did at one point threaten violence. But the rest of it, as the Archbishop Cranmer blog highlights, is little more than the vile rantings of a seemingly troubled teenager - egged on by thousands of Twitter users who decided to leap to Tom Daley's defence, many of whom doing so by verbally abusing '@rileyy_69' in return.

Once again there is a big question here about the right to speak freely (and stupidly), whether the internet should be censored - at least to under 18s or under 16s, and where the red line is in terms of legally / illegally offending someone.


Unwitting Radicals

This week I'm reading Ethics in a Permissive Society by William Barclay, a liberal Christian theologian who served as minister in the Church of Scotland. The text has been made freely available via The Baird Trust in a series of PDF documents. 

I'm reading it on recommendation of the minister at my local Unitarian & Free Christian church (where I'm due to get married shortly), after he quoted a powerful William Barclay excerpt ahead of a service looking at life's passions and I enquired afterwards as to who he was (I realise now most liberal / progressive type Christians will likely be familiar with him!).

However, I also think it follows naturally on from the recent reflection I've been giving to Marcus J. Borg's writing on Sin in Speaking Christian, and the idea of 'sinful structures' within organisations and states as a whole. 

Perhaps now more than ever, or at least in recent decades, British society needs to re-evaluate its shared values and ways - recent scandals have highlighted corruption within the media, financial institutions, political class and possibly even our law & justice services. And our economy remains in recession.

But we are not just talking about systems here. I also worry - on reading about the tragic circumstances in which Kane Gorny died - whether we have each lost  a sense of individual responsibility for the care of others, and for society as a whole.

A few days ago I sat listening in to a conversation between a committed twenty-something Christian and two regular, run-of-the-mill guys. It struck me, as they challenged him with question after question (followed by criticism after criticism) as he tried to calmly explain his beliefs, that young Christians are the unwitting radicals now - for simply choosing to live according to a clearly-stated code of ethics, a discipline, that goes against dominant patterns. The same goes for committed Muslims, Jews (as an aside, Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi, published a powerful article covering similar issues this week), Hindus and Sikhs in Britain, although I would say their continued 'exoticness' affords them some protection from the hostility of the white educated, affluent classes.

Looking to recent British history, it seems there has always been a William Barclay, or a William Wilberforce, or a George Fox who 'speak Truth to power', who act as 'voices in the wilderness' - and my hope is that in this day & age there will be new ethical voices raised up to challenge and guide our society.


Two Thoughts

"This senseless massacre of so many innocent people gathered with friends and family in a movie theater reminds us not only of the great evil that exists in the hearts of some, but of the great and precious gift of life." -- Mitch McConnell, US Senate Minority Leader

"You know, soothing words are nice, but maybe it's time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem across the country. And everybody always says, 'Isn't it tragic,' and you know, we look for was the guy, as you said, maybe trying to recreate Batman. I mean, there are so many murders with guns every day, it's just got to stop. And instead of the two people - President Obama and Gov. Romney - talking in broad things about they want to make the world a better place, okay, tell us how." -- Michael Bloomberg, New York City Mayor


Sin Structures

I read today that Justin Whelby, the Bishop of Durham, is to join the 'Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards' - and he has good form in this area, having spoken out against pay-day loans a few months ago. Adverts for these kind of loans, charged at thousands of percent interest, have proliferated advertising boards, radio ad slots and daytime TV ad slots across the UK in recent years. 

I recall one of my local churches, Norcliffe Chapel, recently had an entire service dedicated to 'ursury' (including a look at Islamic models of banking, which offers an interesting point of comparison worth exploring further) and it was one of the most memorable, challenging services I have taken part in. 

This also leads me back to the chapter on Sin found in Marcus Borg's 'Speaking Christian' which offers some interesting points on how structures & systems, rather than individuals per se, can be viewed as sinful and in need of redemption. I think this is worth considering for people working in all types of organisations.


Rob Bell Week

This week I'm having a bit of a Rob Bell week. I've found myself re-watching his Nooma video, 'Whirlwind', which focuses on the Book of Job. I've also had another look at footage from his 'Drops Like Stars' tour, which looks at the relationship between suffering and creativity. I went to see Rob Bell speak in person, when he visited Stoke a year or two ago, and it was an inspiring, challenging experience - so tonight, with this memory in mind, I looked again at his homepage to see if he was coming back to the UK (no such luck) and found this recent offering, 'Rediscovering Wonder':


A quick blog to mention two interesting, hopeful posts from this week - the first relating to Liberal Christianity, the second relating more specifically to Unitarian Universalist Christianity (a bit of a mouthful!):


Living Christianity

 I saw this on my Facebook newsfeed today, which got me thinking about Bill Baar's post today focusing on questions posed by Ross Douthal regarding the future of Liberal Christianity:
"Times change. God doesn't, but times do. We learn and grow, and the world around us shifts, and the Christian faith is alive only when it is listening, morphing, innovating, letting go of whatever had gotten in the way of Jesus and embracing whatever will help us be more and more the people God wants us to be." --Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis 
Rob Bell is an evangelical, but also advocates a progressive, freed-up, missional Christian faith. He is a pastor of Mars Hill Church which is not tied to any of the historical denominations in America. His books and Nooma DVDs sell in their hundreds of thousands, his speaking tours sell out - with many young adults attending them, including in the UK.

He is arguably a small 'l' liberal Christian, of sorts - but many big 'L' Liberal Christians instinctively wouldn't recognise him as such because of his sense of conviction, and because the language & manner of communication he uses to explain his beliefs (and questions) is very different to that seen in recent generations by people speaking publicly under the 'Liberal Christian' banner. He also doesn't deliberately place himself within this box - he doesn't actively aim his work at Liberal Christians, he has much wider horizons.

It seems to me that established churches / denominations of Liberal Christian traditions need to continue to work towards becoming a vehicle for this kind of progressive, freed-up, missional Christian faith - one rooted in Truth and Spirit but highly-responsive to the issues and needs of the times, one not contented with simply talking to itself.

And if they cannot, then perhaps it is only natural that they decline and vanish, and that others emerge to take their place?



I've been reading this week on the decision of the Anglican Church to join with the Quakers, amongst others, in supporting the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) -  a campaign group that appears to primarily support sanctions and protests against Israel, and is in turn, accused by Israel of being unwaveringly pro-Palestinian. 

I follow the Israel-Palestine conflict with concern but I struggle to take sides, to empathise with one at the expense of the other. The situation feels too steeped in the blood of a complex history, too caught up in a tangled web of modern-day geopolitics, sectarianism and strife, for a simple 'good guys vs. bad guys' narrative. I also readily admit to simply not knowing enough, of having no experience first-hand of the situation - all I have is the British media, which is regularly and rigorously critiqued in the blogoshere for its bias on the issue, from various political stances.

And I suppose that's my point, the support of EAPPI all feels a little too political, and fashionable politics at that.

I am concerned about the plight of Muslim people and Jewish people living in the Holy Land, and although often ignored, Christian people and Druze people also. But all I can do is pray for peace and support charities working there. The rest - the decisions about systems of governance and land ownership etc. - has to come from the peoples living there.


Groundhog Church

This week I intended to blog a bit more on Marcus Borg's latest book, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power and How They Can Be Restored. It's a fantastic book to dip in and dip out of, one chapter at a time, and I've recently been reading and reflecting on the chapter on Sin which sheds a new light on the banking and media scandals in this country.

However, this week I also received the latest newsletter from the Unitarian Christian Association. This publication is separate from The Herald, carrying announcements and shorter, snappier articles. Both make inspiring reading and I recommend Christians of a free-thinking mindset join the UCA for these alone (they do also have an active programmes of events). In the current edition of the UCA newsletter, for July 2012, Mike Cuerden has crafted a short opinion piece on the Christian tradition within the General Assembly of Unitarian & Free Christian Churches, in which he writes:
"Over the years the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches have welcomed former Anglicans, Roman Catholics, members of the United Reformed Church and Methodists, and others who lean, for example, towards Buddhism or are agnostic, even atheistic.

I understood the intention to be a process of mutual learning and support. Today a small but loud section in our ranks seems bent not on modification but on complete reinvention.

There have been calls over the years to drop the words 'Free Christian Churches' from our title. And it seems deliberately perverse that we select the most important week in the Christian calendar in which to hold our annual conference, so that many are forced to travel on Good Friday when consideration of Jesus' message is at its most intense.

Isn't the issue quite simple? Many of our ancient chapels, established around the time of the Great Ejection we commemorate this year have within their Trust Deeds commitment to "the worship of Almighty God."

Through courageous men like Joseph Priestley we grew out of the Presbyterian tradition. He and his great friend Theophilus Lindsey, who founded our church at Essex Hall, wanted not to dilute our Christian principles, but to offer the established church a way of greater inclusivity. James Martineau declared our faith to be Free Christian even more than Unitarian."
Although written as a defence, the article (as a whole) could also be read positively as a piece of liberal evangelism. It could be read as a giving of testimony to a particular expression of Christianity that is radical, heartfelt, open-minded, rational, mystical, practical, inclusive, progressive, simple (though not simplistic), liberal, humanistic and - I would argue most importantly of all - authentic.

And yet this is what also makes me feel a large measure of sadness, and what has caused me to write again on an issue I had decided to leave be - because ultimately this article is not written for the benefit of doubters looking for a way of 'doing Christiainity' they can still connect with, but primarily as a rebuttal to the anti-Christian / revisionist element within the Unitarian & Free Christian denomination. 

(To add a bit of context...) I originally became interested in the Unitarians & Free Christians (known as Unitarian-Universalists in most other countries) way back in 2002, having like so many before me found the Christian theology of childhood crumble. It seemed like the ideal place for me to find fellowship and discipleship. But from there I found myself quickly realising it wasn't what it said on the tin - both through experience of the local church I visited and through reading The Inquirer. This made me take an immediate step back.

I then briefly got involved, via the internet, with self-avowed Unitarian Christians around 2004 time and quickly ran into confrontation (albeit very cordial confrontation) with 'post-Christian' Unitarians who viewed Christianity as outdated, intolerant etc. and wanted the Unitarian & Free Christian / UU denomination to evolve into something far more eclectic, and quite importantly, far less Christian. This took up a lot of my spare time as I poured energy into writing articles and helping build social networks (this was before Facebook and Twitter made these things a lot easier) that advocated for the Unitarian Christian cause against the revisionists. 

And then, after one too many confrontations, I quickly grew disenchanted and took a dozen or so steps back - mistakes made, fingers burnt, lesson learned. All I'd originally sought was a community where I could seek an encounter with God through reflection on the narratives and teachings of the Bible, particularly those centred on Jesus - in a free thinking environment unfettered by imposed creeds and exclusive ritual. Instead I ended up becoming some sort of keyboard jihadi.

A decade later and it seems that the Unitarians & Free Christians are still locked in the same existential debate with one another.

Speaking personally (and admittedly selfishly), this debate continues to be a major block to me actively participating in the Unitarian & Free Christian denomination - and it's one that I've become increasingly able to ignore as I divide my time between attending Norcliffe Chapel (which is very much a 'traditional' Unitarian & Free Christian church) and a Baptist church much nearer to where I live. As an aside, there are no local, active Quaker meetings within easy reach so I tend not to go regularly to one of these now unless staying over in my hometown of Sheffield. 

The simple point I wish to make from all of this is that I could, as a relatively young energetic adult with a desire to get involved in an inclusive church, be contributing positively with others to the future survival - and maybe even growth - of the Unitarian & Free Christian movement in the UK. Instead, as I settle again having moved jobs and cities becoming more able to up my commitment to supporting Christian community, I'm likely to do this elsewhere.

And on a larger level I also question, in this internet age where networking and collaboration have become so easy, why - if the hostility to 'traditional' Unitarianism & Free Christianity is continuing to simmer within the Unitarian & Free Christian denomination in Britain - there aren't attempts by whole congregations to form new, independent connections outside of it? There are certainly congregations in other denominations of a similar mindset & approach (St. Marks CRC being a notable example) and associations much like the UCA in their endeavours (examples include the Progressive Christian Network of Britain, Free to Believe and Modern Church) who could possibly offer the opportunity of fruitful relationships, shared mission and support structures.

The same could also be said to the passionate Buddhists, Pagans, Humanists etc. within the Unitarian & Free Christian denomination - would your time not be better served uniting with individuals and groups of a like-mind?

Just a thought really, speaking as a Free Christian (and one time capital 'U' Unitarian) still looking for a home...