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.


The Gate of the Year

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

So heart be still: 
What need our little life 
Our human life to know, 
If God hath comprehension? 
In all the dizzy strife 
Of things both high and low, 
God hideth His intention.

God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years 
Which wind ahead, so dim 
To our imperfect vision, 
Are clear to God. Our fears 
Are premature; In Him, 
All time hath full provision.

Then rest: until 
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures 
Our mind shall fill.

-- Minnie Louise Haskins

(Inspired by the Facebook page of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain.)


The Road Ahead

This morning I gave ministry at Meeting for Worship. As with other Sundays, I had no real intention of speaking today - yes, I inevitably gave thought on my journey up there of what I might speak about should I feel moved and what others might speak about, but what I came to speak about surprised me. 

Put simply, standing up and breaking the silence at a Quaker meeting does not come easy for me, in fact I try to avoid it, but there comes an unsettling shaking and a 'whooshing up' which I feel I cannot resist. A Friend once commented on the Quaker process, "it's weird but it works" and another Friend today commented how she was agnostic about what brought Quakers to speak. If I am honest, as much as I believe in a notion of God and as much as I am finding the Quaker path to be 'home', I share much of these views - I have doubts and I have a level of self-consciousness, and embarrassment, about taking a lead (albeit momentarily) at a church gathering. 

Having said this, I'll now put to print my thoughts shared this morning, obviously not like-for-like but continuing on the same theme.

I didn't know Alan Greaves nor his wife, but my wife and I were in Sheffield on Christmas Eve. We stay in a hotel over there every two years to be near one half of the family, alternating between Manchester and Sheffield, and very much look forward to seeing out Christmas Eve together by having a 'posh meal' and a few drinks in my home city. Before heading out that evening, our concerns were ordinary - discussing what we might eat and whether we would be able to stay awake long enough for the Midnight Mass at Sheffield Cathedral. As it happened, we went out to eat and returned home at around 10pm to have a few drinks overlooking Victoria Quays, before heading for an early night filled with excitement at the day ahead.

Unbeknown to us, Alan Greaves - a church organist from High Green - also headed out that night to help lead the Midnight Mass at his local church, St Saviour's. He would have probably also have been mulling over similarly ordinary concerns, perhaps thinking of his wife or his four grandchildren, hoping the service would go to plan etc. Shockingly, he was assaulted on his journey to the church and died later in hospital leaving behind a family and community who dearly loved him - the Bishop of Sheffield has since described him as a 'shining light'. There was no clear reason for the events that occurred, it's been declared by various people as 'evil', 'random' and 'senseless'.

I was reading an article about Alan Greaves this morning, amongst the many other deep troubles being talked about in the papers, when the following comments from his wife Maureen Greaves really struck home to me:

“Every Christmas Eve he would bring me a huge bunch of flowers and they are still inside. He put on his coat and hat and said ‘bye love’ as he always did and they were the last words we spoke together."

“Life sometimes produces things like this. It’s a shame but you have to look for the good.”

These words were remarkable really given the level of sudden and total devastation this lady faces. There is a faith in her that many of us can only aspire to.

Reflecting on this also brought me to a conversation I had with my grandmother yesterday. She was due to come visit our home yesterday, as part of a Christmas family gathering, but was taken ill with a virus and didn't want to pass it on. Sat in the house alone had given her time to dwell on my beloved grandfather's absence, following his very difficult passing to lung cancer in February 2010 and her third Christmas spent without him. As we talked, she broke down in tears and expressed a fear that she would not see out the year ahead - and would not get to see the three newborns who are due in Spring (adding to her collection of sixteen grandchildren and six great-grandchildren).

It seems to me that there is much to be sad and fearful about from this conversation but in relaying this to my mother yesterday, I commented that hope could be drawn in that amongst the darkness she continues to see there is still much to live for. My grandmother often says, "As one passes, another one comes..." - again in this there is a hope expressed in the face of destruction.

From there a somewhat odd thought had come to mind during the meeting; Jesus was 33 years old when he died, I wonder how he felt looking ahead at the age of 32 years old, as I look ahead now at the same point age-wise. Did he see only uncertainty and possible desolation ahead or did he in fact continue to walk with faith in the Greater Good? And if we can say this is how the Master Teacher & Great Exemplar approached things during troubled times, then can we not be re-assured and resolved to keep walking forward with faith through each of our lesser but nonetheless potentially consuming troubled times?

In many ways this season and the coming days are only more important because we human beings have placed great expectations and values on the 25th Day of the Twelfth Month and 31st Day of the Twelfth Month as religio-cultural events. And when I see people hurting because these expectations aren't met, I have a growing empathy with earlier Quakers who rejected the notion of holy days and seasons for this reason. But as an event that our majority culture participates in, it is nonetheless hard to ignore. 

There will be many of us, in varying circumstances, looking to the road ahead in 2013 with a mix of contentment, sadness and regret for what has passed - and fear and hope for what is to come. In thinking about the coming year, we must try to follow the examples of our Christian tradition and of our present day living, and cling on to the lights of our lives.

And as the news of his terrible passing no longer makes the headlines, we must also keep a special place in our prayers for the loved ones of Alan Greaves - particularly his wife Maureen Greaves - in the coming year.

The fight for peace and justice is not yet won.

Following the meeting there was a discussion amongst Friends touching upon both our own particular, everyday difficulties and the great tragedies we see. Thought was given to the Amish school shooting in 2006 and the manner in which the families of those shot showed love and care towards the shooter's wife. I added to this my memory of the grace shown by many of the families of the young victims of stabbings in London over the past few years. 

The belief in forgiveness as necessary in the process of being able to continue to live hopefully was expressed. We talked about how events occur beyond our control but we can each shape our perception and understanding of them, that this is a battle we must each undertake within. In this sense, although we cannot protect ourselves from troubled times - what will be will ultimately be - we have influence over the narratives and meanings we attach to things.

Later, having returned home, I sat with my wife watching a DVD of the Luther television series -  a detective drama set amongst a dark London underworld. One of the protagonists quotes John Milton's Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

2013 will come and we have to accept some of us will face great trials as others will experience great joy, but we must each continue to walk together with hearts and minds of faith.


Christmas in the 21st Century

My internet browsing, deep reading of various books and subsequent blogging have all slowed due to the Christmas period - and that's a good thing. I've said it many times on this blog before, I'm sure, but those of us with inquisitive, analytical, whirring minds need to take time just to be otherwise we exhaust ourselves and fail to appreciate the simpler, often finer, things.

However, I thought I'd log on this morning to quickly give mention to two articles about this time in the traditional Christian calendar. I don't necessarily agree with them, but they are provoking.

First, there is Daniel Hannan's 'Christmas celebrates the defining event of our civilisation'. Daniel Hannan is a libertarian, often dissenting member and MEP, of the UK's Conservative Party. He argues, drawing on his own Peruvian connections, that the narrative and history of European Christianity finds a constructive connection with Paganism rather than it simply being a case of conquest and replacement - and that Christmas, which is clearly Pagan-rooted, is an example of this. He also argues that the Jesus Story of Ultimate Sacrifice continues to be the defining narrative of European / European-rooted civilisation.

Second, there is Mike Ghouse's 'Interfaith Christmas: Making God Boundless'. Mike Ghouse is writing for the Huffington Post, a liberal-left online newspaper, and is an advocate for religious pluralism. He argues that Christmas, the Christian version not the Capitalist one, need not alienate those of other faiths due to the universal religious value of forgiveness and generosity it expresses. (In trying to re-find the article by Mike Ghouse, I also found an article by Petula Dvorak, 'Christmas for Christians, Muslims and Jews', which expresses similar sentiments.) This seems to be more a Jesus Story of Continuous Service.

I am unsure how these fit with the debate over whether Christianity is culture-central or counter-cultural in terms of its relationship with Western societies. A longer discussion for another time I think.

I guess what we ultimately find in these are two views is an exclusive, harder-edged view of Christianity and a milder, more inclusive one. I am not sure where I stand, I think the Jesus Story does represent a key turning point in European history, and world history for that matter, but for me it's not necessarily all about atonement - it's the idea of an emerging 'prophethood and priesthood of all believers', a building of a 'Commonwealth of God', that the story of Jesus's life and teachings acts as a catalyst for. 

I guess that might make me a milksop for some, and maybe an ordinary radical to others.


Happy Christmas!

(Created from the various ministry given at Quaker Meeting on 23/12/12)


Finding Home for Christmas

The writings of Thich Nhat Hanh have had a big influence on me over the years and I often find myself returning to his teachings despite becoming more distant from Buddhism. This week I came across the Christmas sermon, 'Home is the Way', from Thich Nhat Hanh - I have read over it a couple of times and I'm still digesting it. However, as work ends for two weeks, my thoughts are turning back to home and family - with anxiety as well as excitement - and this extract certainly speaks to my condition, offering comfort and challenge:
"Christmas time is a time for the family, when family members return to their home. Wherever we may be, we try to find a way home to be with our family. It is like the Tết holiday in the Vietnamese culture. We decorate our house and find ways to make our home warm and cozy. We all yearn to have a home that is warm and loving; where we feel that we do not need to go anywhere, or to do or to pursue anything anymore. It is what we can call our ‘true home’. We all have this yearning, this deep desire to be in our true home.
Jesus, as soon as he was born, had to be on the run right away and to be a refugee, a runaway without a home. When he grew up and became a young man, it was the same; he was still a wanderer with no real home to return to. In one of his discourses, he protested that even the birds have their nests to return to or the rabbits and squirrels have their burrows; but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head, no place to call home.
Siddhartha, as an adult, found himself in a similar situation. He was born into a royal family that was wealthy and privileged. He could have anything he desired. He had a beautiful wife and a good son. He had a bright future ahead of him; destined to be king and ruler of a great empire. But still, he did not feel comfortable even with all this. He did not feel at home. He was not at peace. Therefore, one day, he decided to leave his family in search of his true home, in search of inner peace.

Both Jesus and Siddhartha were searching for their true home. They wanted to find a warm abode where they would not have to search for anything anymore and where they would feel truly at home and at peace. Western people have a saying, “There is no place like home” that expresses the feeling that there is nothing like coming home after being away. Yet still, some of us do not feel at home, do not feel that we have a home to return to, even in our own families. It is because in our families, there is not enough warmth, not enough love, ease, peace or happiness.

Some of us have a homeland, living in the country where we were born, yet we still want to escape and go somewhere else. We feel like we do not have a homeland. Some Jewish people feel that they still do not have a homeland. They have been wandering and searching for a homeland for thousands of years – for a place, a piece of land to call home. Even to this day they have yet to find their homeland. And we – the French, the Americans, the British, and the Vietnamese – we all have a country to call our homeland, but still, we do not feel contented and some of us want to leave. This is because we have not found our true home in our heart. This season, even if we buy a Christmas tree to decorate our home, this does not necessarily mean that we have found our true home or that we are at ease living in our homeland. For our home to be true, there needs to be love, warmth, and fulfilment.

In the end, Jesus found his true home in his heart. He found the light in his heart. He taught his disciples that they too have their own light and he taught them to bring that light out for others to see. Siddhartha taught that one’s true home can be found in the present moment. He developed practices for his disciples so that they too could find their true home. He taught that we each have an island within that is safe and secure. If we know how to return to this island, we can be in touch with our blood and spiritual ancestors, with the wonders of life, and with our own self. In the island of our true self, we can find peace and fulfilment."


More Census Geekery (for Unitarians)

I always actively try to approach human communities by seeking to establish what various groups hold in common - it is all too easy to reduce groups of people we don't know to a series of observations, often misplaced, about how they are unlike ourselves. And in framing these differences, we also tend to judge ourselves as better (or worse) which is equally misplaced - not to mention potentially destructive.

On this basis, it is worth noting that according to the UK Census 2011, approximately 73% of Britons identify with a 'mainstream' faith, and approximately 65% have an Abrahamic theist-rooted faith.  Whether those within this literally believe Jesus ascended to heaven via a Star Trek style transporter beam or Muhammed rode there on a magical horse or Enoch walked there with God (presumably) via a worm hole is not known, nor knowable. On top of the 73%, you could probably count another 1 - 2% in terms of those who identify with the 'minority of the minority' faiths, plus there will be some who adopted the 'Mind Your Own' position in relation to the religion question. 

The point is, the majority of Britons hold a sense of a God in common, the vast majority hold a sense of some kind of underlying / overriding divinity or greater meaning to life in common.

However, if you flip the things-we-hold-in-common approach around, it is also interesting to see in particular the diversity, and peculiarities, of the 240,000 responses outside of those identifying with the main Abrahamic and Dharmic religions. The Guardian has produced an interesting, if not slightly geeky, breakdown of the smaller religious groups which includes the following responses:

- 23,500 Mixed Religion
- 500 Free Thinkers
- 1,200 Deists
- 800 Theists + a further 2,900 who state 'Believe in God'
- 1,900 Individualists ('Own Belief System')
- 900 Universalists + a further 400 who state 'Church of All Religion'

The reason these stand out for me are, speaking as someone who for a long time affiliated with the Unitarian & Free Christian denomination, is that this can be roughly interpreted as a clear 32,000 people who may find the current form of British Unitarianism which mixes liberal Judeao-Christian faith with a more universalistic 'all big religions are ultimately the same' approach appealing - aside from out-and-out liberal-minded Christians of course (an initially unintentional double entendre but one I am now proud of). There are also 14,000 who identify as 'Spiritual' which might be an added potential recruiting ground as most of these will likely have a Judeao-Christian upbringing.

If you consider the 'Earth-centred spirituality' responses, you add potentially another 75,000  - a quick totalling of those who identified as Pagan, Druid, Animism and Wiccan etc. Although I would argue firstly, that these are less compatible with Unitarianism in terms of it being a faith deeply rooted in monotheist theology (particularly if you have actively rejected this upbringing) and secondly, why potentially be a competing minority voice in one group when you could form a relatively unified group of your own (and much larger)? The Pagan Federation seems a more natural home. There are also 2,300 Pantheists which could be linked in with this group or those more Judeao-Christian leanings, depending on whether they are truly Pantheist or more Panentheist.

There will also be a not insignificant number within the 25% of 'no religon' responses that are nonetheless receptive to faith. Research undertaken by the Theos think tank titled 'Post-religious Britain: The faith of the faithless?' highlights 23% of self-identifying atheists believe in a human soul, 15% in life after death, 20% in the supernatural power of ancestors, 7% in angels - it is probable many individuals responding to this research answered yes to a few of these so we cannot add these up and say a majority of atheists believe in the supernatural. But it does perhaps throw water on the celebratory fires of more militant, purist atheists. And it does suggest these agnostic 'no religion'  types might also find the Unitarian church naturally appealing.

The final group worth a mention - and which now find voice under the umbrella of the Unitarian denomination, particularly so in the United States - are Humanists who come in at 15,000 on the UK Census 2011. Again though, as with Pagan-types, I find it hard to see how they can peaceably fit with the church - at least given the anti-religion, primarily anti-Christian, tendencies of the British Humanist Association. It might be they would be better served and put to service joining this organisation's 28,000 members (I admit to smiling at the Church of England's mischievous reference to the BHA at the end of their official response to the UK Census 2011).

It's all just a thought really in terms of British Unitarianism re-finding its way and maintaining enough growth to survive their predicted extinction. And inevitably written with a pinch of salt if you consider these surveys were the result of simple tick box exercises rather than explanation or discussion.

I have yet to work out what the immediate potential market for the Quakers is. Maybe the Jedi Knights would be the first ones to look at, as talk of 'The Force' seems similar(ish) to how some Quakers talk of 'The Light' and 'The Spirit' - although I see this impersonal 'sacred electricity' God as a limiting notion rather than one to be fostered, preferring to view God as 'transpersonal' or 'metapersonal'; That is, a God consisting of some personal aspects we can relate to, and more abstract, mysterious aspects which the human mind struggles to understand.

Finally, I am not sure how the 6,000 'Heavy Metal' disciples fit in. I am not sure the Unitarian churches I have visited would cope with a praise band, let alone a hardcore rock band... And of course, the silence-loving Quakers are effectively their arch-enemy!


Christians, Welcome the Census

Yesterday the initial wave of UK census findings were released with mainstream news outlets tending to focus on 1) the increasing ethnic diversity of the country 2) the increase in people stating no religious affiliation 3) the decrease in numbers and percentage of people identifying as Christians, and 4) the increase in people identifying as Muslims. 

There is a great deal more information and nuances to be uncovered yet but these were the headlines of TV news, and followed more or less by the British press today.

Looking around the internet at various comments on blogs, social networks and message boards, there was two noticeable currents I came across. Firstly, in terms of ethnicity and the apparent dramatic rise in Muslim residents, there was a general pessimism and concern from commenters that migration was changing Britain too fast and to the detriment of native peoples and cultures, however they might be defined.  

Secondly, I noticed what could be described as a  'crowing of victory' from the self-proclaimed Disciples of Atheism (or at least, the Science-is-God ideologues) and 'sigh of resignation' from self-proclaimed Disciples of Christ (or at least, the servants / beneficiaries of the long dominant churches).

Here's my take on both...

The 'World in One Country' Scenario

I can understand the fear over the change in ethnic and cultural make-up of Britain to a point. 

In some towns and cities, such as those in Yorkshire and Lancashire, the cosmopolitan, upbeat nature of central London is not felt. In particular there are many smaller northern towns, such as Dewsbury and Oldham, where there seems to be stark segregation between Muslim and non-Muslim residents. They live side-by-side, more or less cordially, but do not really engage with one another other than on an economic basis - working together, using some of the same shops etc. There might not be anything particularly 'wrong' with this, but as I've discussed previously on this blog in my observations of Bosnia, this can lead to a strong sense of the 'other' and related misunderstandings, which in turn can eventually lead to outright conflict. 

There are also those who view migration through a purely economic lens in terms of equating more people with less public services, houses and employment.

I don't think either concerns, when expressed reasonably, should be dismissed as 'bigotry' or any other pejorative term.

However, I also believe - and hope - that what we are witnessing in Britain and much of Western society is the natural birth of a globalised society, and that the rest of the world will follow. I didn't read The Sun today but thought it's headline was fitting:

 Consider the world today. 
  • States based on a narrow definition of ethnicity or ideology (usually religion, but including communism) have proved time and time to fail - they cannot contain their diversity, and any attempt to 'de-diversify' ends in disaster.
  • Improvements in transport have brought diverse peoples physically closer to one another - for example, journeys that could take weeks such as those between Europe and Asia, now take hours.
  • The dawn of the Information Age, triggered by telecommunications and invigorated (or put more accurately, turbo charged) by the internet, has brought diverse peoples intellectually closer.
  • A prolonged wealth gap between societies has inevitably resulted in largescale migration, borne out of the human instinct to both survive and thrive, and see their offspring do the same.
  • A continued gap between societies of the 'freer world' - in which there is a reliable level of liberty, justice and peace - and the rest has again inevitably resulted in largescale migration, again borne out of the human instinct to both survive and thrive, and see their offspring do the same.
Just as settlements became tribes and tribes became nations and nations became superstates (and are still doing so), so it is that I think we are now very slowly- but noticeably so - moving to a position where humanity is the common denominator, and within that we will find overlapping networks of identities. Identities not necessarily just defined by ethnicity or religious affiliation. It is as I say above, a 'natural birth', that will not be without moments of pain for those most impacted by the process.

That said, this perspective is interesting and potentially exciting as a Christian. I have been reading William Barclay's 'Insights' commentary on Christmas just recently and he talks about Nazareth being a nondescript town within a very significant area through which various trade routes between the cultural division of Eastern and Western civilisation, and the geographical division Northern and Southern hemispheres all passed. He contends that this would have surely played a formative role in the emerging worldview of Jesus and the vanguard movement he was to found. 

There are many takes on what Christianity was and wasn't in its early phase or since then - and I am happy to admit this usually depends on your current position, and I am no different.

My understanding is that Christianity started off as a spontaneous Spirit-fuelled grassroots movement, triggered by the Jesus event, that increasingly stretched across ethnicities and cultures, taking elements of their various insights, practices - and perplexities - along the way. And it was precisely this creative tension, this spark in the melting pot, that has resulted in it gathering more and more momentum, and from there marching on and on and on over the centuries contributing much to progression of the human species (though not always). Conversely, when 'Christianity' has found itself neatly fixed as a banner above a society, it has in turn become stifled and subject to an inevitable decline.

The 'Post-Christendom' Scenario

This leads to my second point about the decline of Christianity in Britain.

However, before we go further, let us consider Richard Dawkins's comments on the census and his glee at the apparent eventual vanquishing of Christianity from Britain's shores. In an article for The Telegraph today he contends that the 59% who ticked 'Christian' contain a huge swathe who are in fact not really Christian because they in turn do not tick the various boxes he defines as what it takes to be a Christian (and admittedly, perhaps what the more dogmatic Christians might also define). Aside from the issue of defining a Christian, what he misses is that if the 59% do not have enough shared belief to represent a bloc, it is highly unlikely the 25% who identified as 'no religion' have a shared viewpoint. Put simply, the 25% do not necessarily buy into his science-based belief system either - intellectually speaking or book sales speaking.

When placed under the microscope, I think we can reasonably say even the most seemingly united group of people retain a fundamental level of complexity and diversity - such is humanity.

Having said that, I do think Dawkins is touching upon a fair point about the discrepancy between 'nominally Christian' and 'actively Christian' which is not reflected in a simple statistic of 59%, but is highlighted when comparing the number of people who answered Christian on the census compared to average weekly church attendances.

In addition, yesterday's news of the political establishment's decision to press ahead with gay marriage - supported by leading figures across the political parties but opposed by the majority of Christian churches - highlights the decline in Christianity as the state-sponsored religion and preferred ideological community. Britain, as with much of Western Europe, has well and truly entered a 'Post-Christendom' era - a transitional phrase from a Christian-centred state and public culture to something else. It is as yet unknown what the something else will be.

However, again I think many contemporary, active Christians can be heartened rather than dismayed by this. If we go back to the context in which Christianity thrived, it was as a grassroots movement led by the convinced few. It was a committed movement not concerned with earthly power but the bringing about of a more fulfilling individual and communal way of living, and sharing it with others, through connection to that sacred something we call 'God', 'Christ' and 'Spirit'.

For me, I would much rather be part of a community energised and convinced by the Spirit rather than what we often see now in church buildings - stale communities moved only by procedure (the 'right and proper order of things' mentality') and a sense of position (the 'local worthy' mentality). And there is evidence of radical, positive-minded communities emerging - you just have to go looking for it.

In short, the census provides opportunity for Christianity to both get back to basics and to renew itself. I don't imagine it going back to the exact mindset and practice of 2000 years ago - times have changed, it has grown and progressed along the way by the millions of people who lived in a deep relationship with it. But now is an opportunity to rediscover that original small 's' and capital 'S' spirit that shaped the early communities and spurred their descendants on to achieve many good things for the whole of humanity over the past two millenia, and to be renewed by it.


Norcliffe Chapel on Facebook

 Spot the chapel!

It's pleasing to see Norcliffe Chapel, the Unitarian & Free Christian congregation we were married by this summer, have now ventured on to Facebook. The church is situated approximately 50 yards off the main road in Styal, an old mill village.

I've put a few photos on the page to show off the fantastic interior of the building (and my wife!). We have some treasured memories of the day, with the service shaped greatly through conversations with the minister Alex Bradley - and we continue to look forward to visiting for worship from time to time. 

The church has existed there since 1823 and has a plaque next to the main entrance stating it is for, "The worship of God; and the furtherance of Christian life; free from the fetters of any written and unwritten; declaration of doctrine".  We have this as part of a Neil Rowland created collage of photos on our dining room wall. The modern-day ethos of the chapel, in our experience, is generally liberal, open-minded Christianity with space provided for reflection on both theological themes, the human experience and social justice issues.

Although it always seems to have a long queue of couples wanting to get married there (partly because of its proximity to nearby reception venues, partly because of its beauty), it's location means that it remains in many ways a hidden gem.


2nd Sunday of Advent

I didn't go to Meeting for Worship this weekend due to a cold or flu bug which is laying me low. I think the sense of closeness to one another that occurs at a Quaker meeting, which I personally experience much more than sat in the pews of a traditional church, also brings to mind just how infectious one can be!

Instead I stayed at home helped my wife re-put up the tree, inbetween periods of laying on the sofa feeling sorry for myself. Our tree is an artificial one, not one of the reported six million real ones cut down for the event. However, I'm not sure the plastic variety has a smaller carbon footprint so won't get self-righteous about this. 

This year our tree has a small nativity set within it as a discreet reminder for us to try remain in-tune with what the season is really about for us as Christians - although having said that, the links with other religious festivals at this time of year are also worth considering (see here and here).

As part of this attempt at a 'more meaningful Christmas' we took time this weekend at the shops to put together a donation for a local food bank. The reason I mention this is not to boast about our apparent good nature but to encourage others to do the same - we too had to be reminded, and without being prompted would have probably taken it for granted the number of neighbours who will go hungry this winter. Today the Guardian reported on Glasgow's poorer citizens and the approach to Christmas, and whilst this former powerhouse of the British Empire has struggled particularly in the new economic era, breadline living is evident across the UK.

Me and my wife have also adopted a (seemingly) Scandinavian tradition of giving one another a small gift each Advent Sunday rather than going for one big lavish splurge on Christmas Day. In doing so we are attempting to mark and enjoy the whole season rather than getting as caught up in a frenetic build-up to the 25th. The patiently waiting on and appreciation of smaller gifts, I think, also reflects a pattern we can adopt throughout the year and so again, the period acts as a time of re-dedication to a a way of living - a way of discipleship - ahead of the new calendar year. This seems to have roots in the earlier traditions of Advent, as discussed in a recent blog for HeraldNet.

Next week at the Quakers there is a card giving event after the Meeting for Worship - each member brings one card and places it on the central table, and then takes another away (hopefully not accidentally taking away the same one!). It is a small way of engaging in sharing goodwill without being overly wasteful. The card I will be sharing reads on the front:

As the wise men were led
by the star above -
May we always be led
by the light of His love.

If Christmas is to mean anything more than a Pagan-rooted feasting period during the darkest, hungriest part of the European calendar, it's about taking time to re-focus on the Inner Light, and to proactively practise acting out of love - ready for the year ahead.


1st Sunday of Advent

Today is the 1st Sunday of Advent. I spent my morning at Meeting for Worship with Cheadle Hulme Quakers, as I now spend most Sunday mornings. It was a deeply moving meeting, one in which the silence was deep and nourishing - and the ministry both challenging and enriching.

It feels too early to order and express my full thoughts on Advent and Christmas. There are all sorts of questions and issues around this period in the traditional Christian calendar, for Christians and for wider society. And as I move further into fellowship with the Quakers, there is even a thought that I should perhaps even reject any special religious meaning for this time of year - although that was not the sentiment of others at Cheadle Hulme Meeting House, which today lit an Advent wreath and made plans for a carol service in two weeks time.

Anyway, I received an email this week from Free to Believe and it contained the following poem:

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

-- Rowan Williams

This has touched me but I cannot put fully into words why. It coincides with a passage in the Bible, which I came across in Luke 1 - 2 whilst settling down during the first part of this morning's meeting. The passage says:

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

It is interesting to note that an article by John Shelby Spong was also attached to the email, 'debunking' the concept of the Virgin Birth. In the past this would have been the focus on my attention, but it passed me by. Not because I don't agree with Spong, I just feel it's not necessary for me personally at the moment to be engaged in this kind of theological wrangling.

As I sat in contemplative prayer / meditations, the thought of Jesus as a Light of the World rolled around in my mind along with unanswered questions of what it was about him that continues to grasp our intuition and imagination -  and then, from ministry, a hint of Jesus as 'Immanuel' - the clear sure sign of 'God with Us', of our unity with God. Yet from there, a Friend also rose to speak of Jesus as the Man of Sorrows, a symbol of the pain of existence, of our brokenness and loss, the source of much grief and grievance.

Two different yet interwoven images of Comforter and Confronter. 

Then, from there, it struck me that this great set of ideals we find in Jesus of Nazareth - regardless of what we really do know about him and what we really don't - acts as a mirror. We are this. Both light and darkness. But sometimes through the glass we can only see gloom.

And perhaps if we strip down Advent, a period not just coincidentally situated in the darkest season of the European-rooted Christian calendar, it should be just this - a time to actively rededicate ourselves to revealing the light amidst the darkness, to re-affirming unity with God and one another, a time to see past our troubles collected over the year.

And these are not just noble words.

The Quaker ministry given today, as practically-minded as it so often is, advised we can do this through making time with others - spending it in simple joy, through acts of goodwill towards those less fortunate, through helping others distract from their sadness - that this month really is in many ways no different from how the Christian's pattern of life should always be, one defined by kindness. But because we so often fail to live up to this, we perhaps need a month to really spend time practising getting it right.