Revisiting South Africa

I first came here in 2003 – on sabbatical from ministry in Northern Ireland. Many of us who were struggling to make an impact on the relentless sectarianism of Northern Ireland came to South Africa to get a flavour of what seemed to us like a miracle of reconciliation. And it was – I remember particularly driving around and listening to the talk radio. There was a sort of grace about it – something almost entirely absent in Northern Ireland. I remember deciding that I wouldn’t accept any more invitations to go on BBC’s Talkback. It didn’t seem to me to serve any purpose to provide a pretext for bitter phone-in comments and the unending cycles of what we came to call ‘Whataboutery’

This is my third visit – 21 years after the end of white minority rule. It takes a long time. As the plane dipped towards the runway in Capetown, it skimmed a small township/shanty town. Across the motorway outside the airport is the vast sprawl of Khayletsha township. I spent part of Holy Week there with Revd Rachel Mash whom I look forward to meeting next week at the Anglican Eco-Bishops Meeting in Hermanus – of which more later. I remember being moved by the experience of washing calloused black feet in pink plastic basins on Maundy Thursday. I drove back through miles of darkened township – following Rachel’s cheerful direction, ‘Just head towards the lights of the planes coming into the airport’

And I did until, with some relief I found the slip road back onto the motorway – leading back to relative security of the world I knew and away from human indignity the like of which I hadn’t seen before.

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Lots more today about the arrival of the driverless car. At present it looks fairly much a local ‘take me to the shops’ kind of thing. So it will be important when I get a bit older and they say, ‘Maybe you should think about …’

Of course what I needed was the driverless car to take me home from our Cascade evening in Stirling last week. It was 40 miles on a dark and wet road and staying on the right side of the average speed cameras on the A9.

Driverless, I could have got on with reading Boris’ book on Churchill which I am working my way through at present. Of course it’s more about Boris than about Churchill. But he does a fascinating analysis of the oratorical devices in Churchill’s speeches – varying the length of sentences … using Anglo-Saxon roots because he believes that that is the way to tug at Sassenach heartstrings.

Food for thought for the preacher?

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It was a good day yesterday – I was in St Margaret’s, Leven, for the baptism of Elsa. Elsa is the child of Thomas Brauer, our Diocesan Missioner and his wife Cheryl.

Else’s baptism became a day of celebration for our congregations in Lochgelly, Glenrothes and Leven. It took me back to ideas and themes which I used to think about constantly. I remember bending the parish computer to make it do the calculation – the outcome was the information that our parish list recorded the names of about 300 children under the age of seven. And we did four or five baptisms every month.

What made that interesting was the context – we were in the heart of the Bible Belt of Northern Ireland. The challenges to the practice of infant baptism were constant – most commonly that we were attempting to shape salvation through a ritual which was automatic.

The reality was … that we were attempting to shape parish life of a quality which would nurture children in faith – and nurture them for faith decision. We tried hard to create worship which caught the imagination of children – children who are both the present and the future church. I can’t claim that we were startlingly successful. But we tried hard to support parents and to to make children feel both welcome and valued.

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Yesterday was the most beautiful morning – bright and crystal clear. I was doing a bit of personal housekeeping. First a visit to my Pastoral Supervisor. That’s another case of ‘We didn’t need one of those before’. Then a haircut. That of course works on the basis that the time involved is inverse proportion to the amount of hair. And there’s the chat – which takes a while.

By the time I got to the end, their respective contributions to my well-being had begun to blend into one. Stuart, my coiffeur. reminded me that the early part of the seventh decade of life is a time when one can decide not to worry about many things which troubled one earlier on. The message was really ‘hang loose’

Meanwhile back with the ‘we didn’t need one of those before’ Pastoral Supervisor, things were a little more bracing.

It seems to me that this relationship is about trying to work out what is happening in the interface between personal feelings and the practice of ministry. I want to explore why certain things affect me deeply – and I need to be reminded that I should not believe my own propaganda.

And facing outwards from that exploration, it seems to me that, however passionately committed I am personally, I should be constantly thinking as ‘we’ and not as ‘I’

As in the Cascade evening in Stirling on Thursday, I see an important part of my role as being to open up a space and to keep it open – a space in which the church can reflect deeply and theologically on complex issues; a space in which quiet and compassionate voices can be heard; a space in which we can explore the integrity of what ‘visible unity in Christ’ means for us.

In the end, my morning was about making myself accountable – about allowing others to get close enough to say to me some things which had ‘challenge with compassion’ inside them.

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Never needed one of these before


This is Revd Thomas Brauer who has just begun ministry as our Diocesan Missioner. Thomas has spent the last two and a half years as Rector of our Central Fife Group of congregations. So he knows about the long, slow task of working with people to rebuild congregations.

Of course, when I started out in ministry, there was none of this. The expectation was that I would be a visiting machine. After all, it was self-evident that a ‘home-going priest makes a church-going people’. So in the pastoral ministry tradition of the Church of Ireland, I ‘knew my people and was known by them’. I couldn’t begin to estimate how many doors I have knocked in my time. And it worked until it didn’t really work any more

Since then we’ve been in changing times in ministry – trying out different paradigms. Thomas is there because we recognise that clergy and congregations need support in finding new ways forward – strategic planning, developing worship, exploring spirituality, engaging with community, learning to pray, teaching faith ….

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We’ve had the third of our Cascade Conversations in the diocese this evening – they’ve been in Perth, St Andrews and Stirling. Numbers have been strong. People want to talk about human sexuality.

We’ve tried to re-create something of the atmosphere of the Pitlochry Conference. We’ve modelled ‘honest conversation across difference’ and tried to engage with diversity.

For me, all this is part of the way in which our church engages with human sexuality questions in general – and same sex marriage in particular. We’re opening up a space in which difficult conversation can take place. I’ve watched people searching for the words in which they can articulate deep feelings.

It’s that space for dialogue which our church needs at this point. We’re preparing for the time when we shall address the same issues synodically. Speaking to the Church of England General Synod about his travels to every Province of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Justin Welby said that the prize was ‘visible unity in Christ with functional diversity’

Visible unity in Christ transcends our diversity and makes possible a church in which functional diversity becomes possible.

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Some things will always be evocative

At certain angles, the silhouette of a jet plane will always evoke for me the memory of 9/11. In the context of Auschwitz, it is the railway tracks which ran into the centre of the camp. In the last day or two, it has been the picture of Chancellor Merkel taken against those same tracks which has gone round the world.

As you would expect, I found my visit to Auschwitz a couple of years ago disturbing, It’s the enormity of it – and the fact that it is so hard to grasp – which disturbs. You look at the cases of glasses and shoes – you remember reading ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. But in the end I found myself simply sitting on the railway track and trying to grasp it.

One way of thinking about it is to say that this is about things done by other people in other times and other contexts. But that isn’t adequate. The painful reality is that this is the inexorable conclusion of our tendency to wish to identify ‘out groups’ and to blame others for things which cause us pain.

Some of what was experienced in Northern Ireland during the Troubles was in that area – apparently random shootings of people which came about just because of the identity which they were perceived as holding. There seem to be points at which human beings are capable of departing from any moral sense of their actions,

So it’s a day for careful and reflective thinking ..

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In the East Neuk #pisky


If you haven’t visited the East Neuk of Fife, you’ve missed a real treat. Head south from St Andrews for about half an hour and you meet Anstruther, Crail, Pittenweem, St Monans and Elie. Beautiful villages with houses with red tiled roofs – tiles which came as ballast in trading ships. The area reminds me of Cork where I went on childhood holidays – and there is a whiff of Brittany about it as well. The villages are also a bit like villages on the Greek Islands – convoluted streets which make it possible to get lost within the compass of about 100 yards.

We have two faithful congregations there – St Michael’s is in a ‘tin tab’ in Elie and St John’s is in Pittenweem. Alison had a great day with them on Sunday. I enjoyed the moment when I found that the glass in my hand had part of the Declaration of Arbroath etched on it!

And did I mention that they are looking for a part-time Rector?

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Working Together

I’ve been in Glasgow this afternoon to take part in the celebrations which mark the 20th Anniversary of Scottish Churches Housing Action

If you look at their website, they do interesting work across Scotland. To keep any piece of ecumenical infrastructure going for 20 years is in itself a significant achievement.

It seems obvious to me that it is simpler to encourage churches to work together when the purpose is something worthwhile which is common to all of them. Far better than struggling with an ecumenical agenda which seems never quite to go anywhere.

We need more of this – and of course food banks are an obvious example where churches and community come together f or a common purpose. At Revd Anne Tomlinson’s suggestion, I’ve been reading ‘The Stop’ which is the story of how a Food Bank in Toronto worked hard to move beyond ‘just handing out food’ to become an agency which was truly transformation in people’s lives – involving, educating, sharing.

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Paperless. #pisky

Many of us are constantly defeated by the struggle with myriad bits of paper

Meetings – and there are many of those – all have shoals of it. Minutes of the last meeting demand, usually unsuccessfully, to be linked with the Agenda and other stuff for next. The struggle to have the right bits of paper at the right time and to know how to dispose of them properly afterwards defeats even the best of us.

There is still plenty of paper around our office. But the first stage was the movement towards no longer filing anything in paper form. Today’s photocopiers which scan easily and effectively have dealt with that. And electronic filing increases the chance of finding it again – I remember a session on administration from John Truscott who said, ‘Remember it’s not a filing system. It’s a retrieval system’

But working out how not to carry the paper took much longer. And the answer for me appears to be Dropbox. Anything I need to have with me and be able to refer to can go into Dropbox and be accessed from the IPad. And gradually I find myself arriving at meetings with just the IPad. To dispose of the papers after they are needed is the work of a second

Can it really be as simple as that? Time will tell.

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