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.

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An Owl's Thoughts on #JFT96

We now know the verdict reached by Hillsborough Inquiry - the 96 were 'unlawfully killed'. It was a shocking yet not unsurprising unveiling of the truth, as we learnt the extent of the failure and corruption that surround the events of 15th April 1989.

I have blogged about my views on the Hillsborough Disaster before - here - and these views still stand.

Football is a tribal thing -  watching your football team win or lose can be a gripping, hugely emotional experience. And as it happens, I am looking forward to visiting the Hillsborough Stadium this weekend to watch my club, Sheffield Wednesday FC, play a crucial match against Cardiff City FC. I will likely go through all the nail biting, shouting, cheering and fist-clenching of a big game.

But as I look from the Kop towards the Leppings Lane end, I am sure I will pause - as I so often do - to contemplate the enormity of the catastrophe that took place there back in 1989. I along with thousands of others. 

Football has a dark side, thankfully less so this past decade or so. The intensity of footballing rivalry can quickly descend into something abhorrent - and I think some of the chants and comments from the stands can cause more long-term hurt to us as human beings than the punches exchanged by thugs on the periphery. We've seen this recently with Manchester United and Liverpool fans exchanging vile chants about the Hillsborough Disaster and the Munich Disaster. 

Depressingly, the substance of these chants - which we perhaps assume emerge in the heat of the moment - now get expressed on social media seemingly in the cold light of day. I have never heard Sheffield Wednesday fans chant about the Hillsborough Disaster but there has recently been a small but steady trickle of comments on social media which follow the same fan-blaming lies originally perpetuated by The Sun. And Owls aren't the only ones, there are countless others too - with absolutely no connection to the event or any rivalry with Liverpool FC - who post similar on forums and comments sections.

No football fan should mock or denigrate the human suffering of such tragedy, or any other. That's not football.

My father, an avid Sheffield United fan, once told me about an away trip to Elland Road in the 1970s where he witnessed a fellow Blade getting kicked up and down the pavement by a group of Leeds United hooligans. Just around the corner were some police officers - probably near enough to the violent commotion to spot it themselves. My father approached the police officers to alert them to the situation  - the reply was telling, "What do you expect, it's a football match." He also recalls how he and hundreds of Sheffield United fans were once herded through a narrow alley on the way to Rotherham United's old Millmoor stadium, and that a fatal crush very nearly happened that day. 

The point is, the injustice of the Hillsborough Disaster - before, during and after - should be every football fan's concern, every citizen's concern. Because it points to a wider failure and abuse of power.

All the victims are worth remembering but perhaps mention should be given to Nick Joynes, son of a Sheffield Wednesday fan. How many more are the sons, daughters, cousins, brothers, sisters - and so on - of fans of other clubs? Even if we try, we cannot so easily divide along tribal lines.

We would do well to remember also that Hillsborough 1989 is as much about Orgreave 1984 and Rotherham 1997 - 2013.

So, as the spotlight falls on Sheffield Wednesday FC - which is in fact now a very different organisation to the one in 1989, with all the directors involved back then having now left (leaving the club in such a state that it was very nearly liquidated by the High Court) -  I just hope we ordinary Owls fans leave our tribal loyalties to matters on the pitch. Let's not become deniers out of some misplaced urge to defend our football club.

We must continue to show solidarity with our fellow fans and citizens from Liverpool. Let us support attempts to get those individuals responsible in the dock to account for their actions, whether that be retired police officers - or former football club directors. 

Then we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free.

In 2013, Sheffield Wednesday fans on an online forum signed a shirt and drove it to the memorial at Anfield - as a mark of respect for the 96.


The Trees by Philip Larkin

The trees are coming into leaf 
Like something almost being said; 
The recent buds relax and spread, 
Their greenness is a kind of grief. 

Is it that they are born again 
And we grow old? No, they die too, 
Their yearly trick of looking new 
Is written down in rings of grain. 

Yet still the unresting castles thresh 
In fullgrown thickness every May. 
Last year is dead, they seem to say, 
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

I am currently reading 'The Fragrance of God' by Vigen Guroian - the personal reflections of an Orthodox Church priest and keen gardener on the presence of God in the natural world. This poem appeared on my Facebook page and it struck me, just like many of the poems of RS Thomas, as pointing to that sense of divine mystery we can glimpse at work in the natural world - particularly at this time of year as our little island warms up in the spring sun. And of course, if the divine mystery is at work 'out there' in our gardens and woodlands, it is also surely at work within each one of us - if only we could discern it more clearly.

The Need for Narrative

This past week or so I've been on-off watching the debate taking place on the Facebook group 'UK Unitarians', following the meeting of the Unitarian and Free Christian General Assembly - the central body of British Unitarianism. 

'UK Unitarians' is probably the main outlet for Unitarians in Britain, in this internet age, overtaking print publications such as The Inquirer, The Unitarian and The Herald. That said, I am not sure it fully reflects the mindset and mood within the Unitarian movement, as I know many Christian members of the Unitarian movement who simply do not engage with it (one says, 'Why bother? It's rigged...'). I also suspect that the geographical location of the regular posters on there tends to be proportionally much more based in and around London (South East and Midlands) than in Northern England, Wales and Scotland.

The recent debate on 'UK Unitarians' has taken place on two threads:

Speaking personally, my gut reaction is I am kind of tired of this debate. As I've mentioned on this blog before, way back in 2004 I was involved with a number of Unitarian Christians in trying to kickstart a Christian revival within the Unitarian movement - and I got my fingers burnt in various ways. This was not least because I was the workhorse in terms of web design and web content, putting in hours upon hours for over a year, only for various older, more influential figures to then lose heart and walk away. On reflection, they only really wanted to sound off and when it came to the more difficult questions, those that required a level of audacity and organisational 'heavy lifting', they backed off (individually, one-by-one).

Although I was kind of hurt by this experience, it was a useful learning curve - as a young man starting out on a career at the end of university. It also meant I drifted away from the Unitarians, going on to find the Buddhists and then the Quakers - which had a hugely positive impact on my sense of being. I still retain links with British Unitarianism, mainly through membership of the Unitarian Christian Association and friendship with Oldham Unitarian Chapel, and I did actively choose to get married in a Unitarian / Free Christian chapel in 2010 - but I am no longer reliant on Unitarianism as the centerpoint of my religious life and identity. 

More recently, I've been involved in the fledgling 'Fellowship of Non-Subscribing Christians' (FNSC) which, as I understand it, is not unlike the UUA's 'Church of the Larger Fellowship' in its (currently informal) relationship with the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland (NSPCI). Although, unlike the CLF, it has attracted quite a number of dissenters from the British Unitarian movement alongside Non-Subscribers living in and away from Northern Ireland - these dissenters have given the FNSC added verve but also inadvertently created a sense of threat amongst some Unitarians.

In the debates I mention above, one of the self-declared 'pluralists' of the British Unitarian movement has labelled the FNSC a 'throwback' and 'parasitical' in terms of its relationship with the NSPCI. This slur has been allowed to stand by the moderators of the 'UK Unitarians' forum - a decision I feel is not without significance given their usually rigorous enforcing of rules around 'etiquette', and is arguably a reflection of bias (conscious or unconscious). It is also simply inaccurate - the FNSC is well supported by Non-Subscribing Presbyterian ministers and lay people, because they know it is helping their healthy but very much locally-orientated church reach out to the wider world. I have experienced this mutual relationship personally having completed the NSPCI Lay Reader's Course, via distance learning, and having visited Northern Ireland on two occasions, one involving me leading worship at Dromore. 

The recent debate on 'UK Unitarians' appears to swirl around 'ultra-pluralism versus absolute christocentricity' (when in fact, the Unitarians and Free Christians I have encountered tend to be something in-between) - and my suspicion is that it is just another replay of a debate that has taken place a dozen times over the past 15 years, where fine speeches are made but ultimately the paralysing stand-off between competing visions continues.

However, a different take I have found on it, and probably the best comment I have seen within the debate, comes from Leeds-based Unitarian minister Jo James who puts forward the following viewpoints:
  • Saying "We believe in Good, being good, doing good not... anything supernatural..." (as one leading British Unitarian minister does in the GA's 'Next Steps' video) may seem to fit with modern mores but the concept of 'good' is too abstract and amorphous. 
  • The current focus of the British Unitarian leadership appears to be on corporate strategy and marketing devices rather than theology.
  • British Unitarians will celebrate 'nuanced theology', such as when as Muslim extremist develops a wider view, but are unwilling to engage in the same process, say with the question of God - which many now simplistically reject, caricaturing it as supernatural 'pie in the sky'.
  • British Unitarians, as a movement, are squandering their radical inheritance, that of Spinoza et al.
  • British Unitarians are trapped in a false dichotomies - 'kind deeds or theology', 'inward spirituality versus outward practice'.
  • The promotion of a Unitarian religious life has been reduced to a question of successful marketing, not the content of the product itself. British Unitarianism has taken on a consumerist mindset - we just need to sell you this 'thing' - instead of the more difficult yet potentially compelling endeavour of developing a philosophical / theological worldview, and from there a sense of collective mission and personal discipleship. 

Interestingly, within the debate, it has also been mentioned that there is a 'Unitarian Theology Conference' coming up in May, open to all Unitarians and Free Christians. This appears to be an independent initiative and will take place in Manchester. What I have noted is those who advocate a 'pluralist' position seem instinctively hostile towards it and have already suggested this is an imposition and curtailing of personal freedom - which suggests 'pluralism' is a by-word simply for unmitigated individualism, and by default, a collective vacuum.

This certainly has made me think, not just about Unitarianism, but our wider culture. It made me think also back to this article, published in The Guardian recently about white underachievement in British schools: 'The problem for poor, white kids is that a part of their culture has been destroyed'. I would say this is probably also the case for those black young people (alongside their white friends) who sometimes follow the more nihilistic side of Black American culture and those Asian young people (again, alongside some of their white friends) who find the worldview of ISIS and Al-Qaeda meets that inner sense of alienation, of being lost.

I have seen this first-hand, working as I did in Liverpool near the Croxteth and Norris Green areas, where young gangs (largely white) have taken to something not far off guerilla warfare, in what has been noted is not a traditional conflict over the drugs trade but simply 'something to do'.

We have all suffered a loss of narrative, individually and as a society. The 'Kingdom of Heaven' that we were once travelling towards - painted variously whether you were a Liberation Catholic, a Salvation Army Protestant, a Jewish Socialist, a Methodist Trade Unionist or something else - has all been eroded away. Now our only kingdom is the self, which we must manicure with ever finer goods, cosmetics and other products. We may dabble in philosophy, but this tends to be restricted to a saying etched on a prettily-painted board for our living room walls or the sharing of a meme on Facebook - glanced at and then largely forgotten.

We, this social creature we call humanity, have become atomised - at least in the The West. Much has been made of church decline, but we would do well to remember membership of associations and clubs is down across the board - reflecting, I think, the scale of this atomisation.

We see this in the EU debate where the prominent arguments always appear to come back to focus on personal bank balances rather than broader, more social, visions of our nation's future in or out. There has been some visioning from the 'Brexiteers' of a more democratic, maritime Britain whereas there has been, disappointingly, absolutely nothing from the 'Bremainers' around the original dream of Europe as a family of nations, living in peace and prosperity - a fledgling model for what the whole world may one day become.

And this is why, perhaps just perhaps, the elevation of Jeremy Corbyn - whether we agree with his actual policies or not - offers something initially perplexing yet possibly potent. Perplexing because we have been led to believe over the past twenty years that to be successful in politics, you need to be 'middle of the road' (as we saw with the Blairites). Potent because he offers us narrative, vision, principle, substance (though noticeably not on the EU) where the rest of the political elite do not.

It does feel, as I sit and reflect on this, that we in the West - living as we do in this strange mix of material luxury and spiritual-social poverty - do indeed live in strange times. I just hope that purer spark of humanity - as expressed in Jesus Christ and other figures of the world's religions, not forgetting historical figures such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King - can prevail and drive us forward once again. And not just within the Unitarian bubble, but within society as a whole. 

As William Ellery Channing preached, 'humanity has not fallen, it is yet to rise...' What we are aiming at rising towards, how we get there, and the milestones and examples we look for along the way remains the question of this age, as with ages gone by - various answers may be worked upon but for a society or a group within a society, this is ultimately not an individual pursuit.