To Zoom or not to Zoom

We were back in church at Easter. On many levels it’s good to be back in the church community. But ….. the small numbers, the absence of singing, the masks … I guess that, as we move back to some kind of normality, the ‘in church’ experience will improve. And then we’ll have to talk about whether Zoom was just something we did when we had no alternative – is it going to be an enduring part of what we offer.

This is actually a number of quite separate questions. There is the Lord Braid view that online worship is an alternative rather than worship itself. I guess that questions about the authenticity of sacraments are in the same area. I have to confess that there are things about worship on Zoom which I like. I like being able to see the congregation all on the screen at the same time. I like being able to visit a number of churches – some would say that I am fickle. But Zoom really helps to challenge the congregationalism which is so characteristic of church life. And it makes it possible to include housebound people in the community – and to give people who may be considering joining a congregation an opportunity to ‘try before you buy’

I know that I am privileged in my ability to have a ‘view from the pew’ or more often a ‘view from the laptop on the kitchen table.’ To lead worship on Zoom must be very demanding – particularly if you want to do more than just ‘point a camera’ at what you would have been doing anyway. One of my clergy friends described it to me as ‘like running a small theatre which also broadcasts its offerings.’

I suspect that we are going to be talking about this for a long time. I’m about to run a clergy ‘Quiet Day’ on Zoom. I wonder how that will go!

Back to Rioting

I left Northern Ireland in 2005. So I have a sort of accumulated understanding of it – but I don’t have the day by day nuances of it any more.

I certainly know about the peace lines where the current rioting is taking place. I made my start in ministry in 1976 on the Oldpark and Ballysillan Roads. In West Belfast, the communities are divided into clearly-defined areas. But this area of North Belfast was and remains an area of conflict because the communities are interwoven street by street. In the parish area where I started, there were no fewer than eight peace lines – tall metal structures designed to make people feel safe by separating them. And now, nearly fifty years later, the same cycles of violence are being played out. And the reasons for it are both as brutally simple and as mystifyingly complex as ever.

The simple answer? Well it usually comes down to some version of the Zero Sum Game. BBC reporter Emma Vardy walked down the pavement with a young man who explained it succinctly – if people come to believe that Sinn Fein are winning, then our side must be losing. And some suggest that the view that Sinn Fein are winning is rooted in the decision not to bring prosecutions for Covid rule violations around the funeral of IRA leader Bobby Storey. And so we see young people hurling rocks and petrol bombs.

But the more complex reasons?

Today’s headline in the Guardian says ‘Boris Johnson’s careless Brexit is now playing out in Belfast. And surely at least some of the truth is in there. Brexit was always going to be costly for Ireland – if there couldn’t be a border on the island of Ireland, then there had to be a tariff barrier in the Irish Sea. That has been enough to lead some of the unionist population to believe that their status within the United Kingdom is being changed. We have sat on the quayside in Larne and Cairnryan and thought about these things – sat in queues sometimes of as few as eight cars and thought about the nonsensical and whimsical plans for a bridge or a tunnel as a way of helping us to feel closer together

If we open the focus out more widely, we end up needing to consider the future shape of the nations of the British Isles and their inter-relationships

I’ve been reading Gavin Esler’s book: ‘How Britain ends: English nationalism and the rebirth of four nations’

I’ll return another day to the themes of this book. But for now, I simply restate this comment: ‘The central argument of this book is that, while the United Kingdom can survive Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalisms, it cannot survive English nationalism’

That analysis assumes that Brexit is an expression of English nationalism. As such it inevitably destabilises all the other relationships within the United Kingdom and the British Isles.

Dear Scotland

Archbishop Stephen Cottrell’s ‘Dear England’ book has nudged me to think about ‘Dear Scotland’. There are many things which I could write about – with great affection. But the one which interests me most is the nature of secular society in Scotland.

Almost everywhere, society has been becoming more secular. It’s a sort of inexorable attrition of the life of faith and the practice of religion. To turn the tide tends to be a Canute-like endeavour. But strangely, as our societies become more multi-faith, religion paradoxically becomes more important,

It took me a long time to realise that what drives the secularising movement is not the same in every society.

In England, it’s been a steady ‘movement away’ and I’m often surprised by how much is left. In Ireland, the prosperous ‘Celtic Tiger’ years and the abuse scandals reduced the Catholic Church to a shadow of itself in a single generation. In Northern Ireland, the all-pervasive sectarianism artificially sustained religious affiliation – and the peace process has tended to weaken it. But there is a long way to go.

The Brierley Consultancy has been surveying religious practice in Scotland for many years. The figures are startling:

The 1984 Scottish Census recorded total church attendance as 854,000, and between 1984 and 2002 it reduced by 33% to 570,000 in 2002. That 2002 attendance figure has reduced over 14 years to 390,000 in 2016, a reduction of 32%.

No doubt there are many causes behind those figures – but the one which seems to me to be ‘special to Scotland’ is the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th Century. The Enlightenment implanted in the Scottish DNA strands of rationalism and empiricism. So the roots of Scottish secular society lie in an intellectual movement not in a gradual ‘falling away’. It is obvious that this will make efforts to grow religious movements challenging to say the least.

Faith communities say, quite rightly, that a decline in religious practice is not the same as the absence of appetite for exploration of the spiritual. But, as applies everywhere, it helps to understand the context.

So my experience has been that it is possible to stir interest in spirituality and prayer. Many people have a radical and faith-driven attitude to issues of social justice. Celtic spirituality remains deeply attractive to many and is increasingly being expressed in the growing pilgrimage movement.

But in a society like this, it is tempting for faith communities to live inside their own world. It takes energy – but it is absolutely necessary that they should try and engage with the whole of society and take their place in the ‘public square’

More another day

Thought for the Day

I’m still doing a regular Thought for the Day for BBC Scotland. One of the really great things of the Covid era is that I no longer have to be in the Studio to broadcast at 7.22 am – just nip upstairs for ten minutes and it’s done!


In this Easter season we dare to hope that a new and brighter future is beginning to beckon beyond the pandemic.  Easter is always linked to springtime with fresh flowers and brighter days.  And spiritually it is a springtime of hope – hope in death defeated and evil overcome.

I guess that for most of us, it will be enough just to get back to some kind of normal – freedom to move around, to meet family and friends, to socialise and to go on holiday.  But, even if we are not yet aware of it, the trauma of the pandemic will have brought fundamental changes to our society.   We have all suffered but the price has been paid more by some than others – the elderly, the poor more than the rich, BAME communities.  Then there are the lost jobs and ruined businesses. Change will come.

In 1945, the world emerged from another long agony – the horrors of World War II – brought to an end by the inhuman agony of the atom bomb and leading to the uncovering of the holocaust.  People were exhausted – time out for recovery would have been understandable – unimaginable amounts of money had been spent and needed to be repaid.  It sounds familiar.

But terrible conflict had actually cleared the way for change.  And within just a few years, the social map of Britain had altered drastically.  The 1944 Education Act had already made secondary education free and available for all.  Then in 1948 came the founding of the NHS with its promise of healthcare free for all at the point of delivery.  And it is the same NHS which has brought us through the Covid pandemic at huge financial cost but even more personal and emotional cost for its staff.

Those changes of the 1940’s graced our society – astonishing in their vision and commitment to the flourishing of all.  They actually transcended everyday politics.  At this moment, we hope again – hope for nothing less.

Writing Faith

My parishioners used to say that they ‘did not know what they were supposed to believe.’  I never quite knew how to respond to that.  But I always wondered.  Because when the moment came ……….it was very clear that they knew exactly.  They might not have been able to speak it.  But they were experts in deep faith deployed with dignity.  Or, to put it another way, they had the ‘faith thing’ of being able to face both life and death calm and unafraid.

Those wonderful people taught me that the church doesn’t function primarily on theological concepts or dogma elegantly defined.  What builds it and sustains it is faith and trust, relationships, openness and honesty, a passion for justice .. and many more.  As I write that, I wonder if that kind of faith maybe doesn’t transmit very easily to those who are not part of it.  And it may just be vulnerable to idealised pictures of how things were in the past.  But that isn’t its fault.

Stephen Cottrell, the new Archbishop of York, has just written a book called ‘Dear England.’  He is a person worth listening to because he has a breadth of involvement – being both President of Affirming Catholicism and Chair of the Church Army Board.

I slightly tripped over ‘Dear England’ – immediately brought back to John Major’s George Orwell reference to elderly ladies ‘bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist.’   And then I wondered what a ‘Dear Scotland’ letter might look like.  And I’ve been thinking about that ever since.

He began at the Costa Coffee stall at Paddington Station where a young woman asked him ‘why I was a priest.’  To which he replied that it was because, ‘I believed in God, that I believed that God was made known in Jesus, that I believed that God wanted, through Jesus and through me, to change the world and that God was going to do it by changing my heart.’

This not a ‘simple guide to Christian faith’.  It is a passionate attempt to set out a coherent way of coming to terms with faith and living it with integrity in society.

I’ll come back another day to what he says about Covid – and about the relationships of the nations of the British Isles and the relationship with Europe.

But for now I’m going to go on thinking about that Dear Scotland letter


Kitchen table pew

I had to struggle last night to get online for the Dunedin Consort’s performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion from Perth Concert Hall. Their concerts are a sort of Passiontide ‘trigger’ for me. As the struggle with the technology subsided, the music began to do as it always does for me. Yes German is another challenge – but Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, Peter’s denial and bitter weeping transcend language and hit home. The Concert Hall seems to be taking its online presence very seriously and professionally – several cameras and clever fading in and out made it an experience of almost television standard. I missed the atmosphere of the Concert Hall – but the experience was real to me.

Meanwhile I took an interest this week in the Facebook discussion among some of our clergy following Lord Braid’s Judgement about the Scottish Government’s decision to close churches. Lord Braid suggested that ‘online broadcasts and services…. are best viewed as an alternative to worship, rather than worship itself.’ An interesting discussion followed about whether worship was a more or less satisfactory online experience ‘live’ or recorded’ and about what happens to sacraments in online worship. I was reminded of the argument in the early days of recorded worship about whether a taped blessing could be considered to ‘work’ or not.

I’ve been reading Rowan Williams’ ‘Candles in the Dark: Faith, Hope and Love in a time of Pain. He made this interesting comment: ‘I have found that the experience of concentrating on ‘spiritual communion’; of quieting myself down to focus on the great gift of God in Jesus, absolutely present in this act, these things; of doing all this in the quiet of home, in a moment of physical stillness and quietness – all this brings home to me the truth that our common life, in and out of church, depends simply on what has been done for us, and in response we can only gaze and adore and give thanks.’

My position on all this at present is that of the person In the pew – which happens to be the laptop on the kitchen table. Online worship is certainly different. But it seems to me that it offers many new possibilities even if it is not the same experience as being in church. I’ve just been part of the congregation at Chichester Cathedral and I’ve been able ‘helicopter in’ to all sorts of places – churches where I have been in ministry or have other connections or where I am just interested. Congregations can build whole new communities like this. It seems to me that the skills required to shape and lead this kind of worship lie somewhere between worship leading and broadcasting. Some have become very effective at doing this. I’ve heard congregations just talking to one another before the service and at the Peace. I’ve heard people reading and leading prayers – and talking about their faith. I’ve heard simple and very effective music. There are new freedoms here even if the online world imposes restraints of its own.

I don’t think this is going to go away – it’s going to be part of church life for the foreseeable future even when we are able to meet in church buildings again!

After Covid – Michael D

President Michael D Higgins of Ireland is a most delightful man – cultured, intelligent and compassionate. Often known simply as ‘Michael D’ He is also a poet and, like most people in Ireland, quite a character. If you haven’t seen the wonderful take-off of his state visit to Britain, you will enjoy this

President Higgins on State Visit to Britain

Meanwhile he has been musing on the future after Covid with Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times. But first you get a sense of how he deals with the relative isolation of these times in his official residence in the Phoenix Park in Dublin

“I go out with my dog,” he says via Zoom, “and I walk around the periphery here. I see people at the other side of the ha-ha at the edge of the Áras, and we discuss dogs at a much exaggerated social distancing.” 

The question which absorbs many of us at the moment is how life is going to be when the pandemic crisis eventually comes to an end. In particular we wonder how we can avoid a repetition of what happened after the financial crash of 2008 where basically we bailed out the banks and life continued pretty much as before..

I find myself constantly wondering how we can understand better the flaws in our society which have been ruthlessly exposed by Covid – where wealth and social class have greatly affected risk and where BAME communities have been disproportionately affected. If the government in London does ultimately concede the enquiry which is so badly needed, we may have a chance of finding out. The worst thing will be for us just to pick up and be delighted that we can carry on ‘as normal’. To some extent, we will all do that – socialising and maybe even beginning to travel again – but we owe it to those who have suffered so much to do much more.

President Higgins, who used to be a Labour politician in Ireland, says that there is a real challenge to the ‘ever-smaller government’ mindset:

“The notion was that the state should be small, where it was tolerated at all, but here we are now, where, at the global level, we can’t possibly respond to the challenge of climate change without the state. And now with the pandemic – again it is the state.”

The theorists of minimal government, he suggests, “have all run to the hills but they’re not gone away. They are in the bushes. They will re-emerge on an argument about the deficit. There is no way you can handle the state deficits that are built up in responding to Covid and say it can be done in that [old] model.”   

Can I make a difference

I’m not a climate warrior. But gradually I have been becoming sensitised to the climate emergency. I’ve been reading and reviewing books like Naomi Klein’s ‘This changes everything’ and they have shifted my outlook. I’ve always been a cyclist. Sadly during the last years before I retired my travels around the Anglican Communion meant that I had a terrible carbon footprint. But in Scotland I tried to use train and bus as much as I could.

One of the things which went deep for me was the Volkswagen ‘dieselgate’ scandal. In our extended family, we have had many VW’s – Passat Estates and Golfs – admired their reliability and solidity. My most recent Golf also been one of the most economical and lowest in emissions – until I found that it wasn’t.

One of the changes we have made has been to replace Alison’s 16 year old and 180000 mile Golf with a new Renault Zoe electric car. I’ll write about that in future postings. We felt that it was one of the actions which we could take in the face of the climate challenge.

But the question that troubles me is always the same – about whether any actions which I take as an individual are ever going to make any difference. Will there be fewer wildfires in California and floods in New South Wales? Will the polar bears on their ice floes rise up and salute us? In other words, is this just ‘virtue signalling’ or is it a real contribution?

I’ll write some more about living with an EV, about the shambles which is the charging network [as described in the most recent edition of Which April 2021]. And of course the big question remains about whether the future really is electric ….

Thought for the Day on St Patrick’s Day

This morning’s Thought for the Day for BBC Scotland. One of the great blessings of these strange times is that I no longer have to go to the studio – just nip upstairs to a spare bedroom!

My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many. 

It’s St Patrick’s Day – and these are the words of St Patrick himself – the opening of his Confessions, his statement of faith.

So forget the St Patrick’s Day razzmatazz – the parades, the green beer and the rest – which have become part of St Patrick’s Day as the Irish diaspora celebrates its identity.  Patrick is simplicity, humility and quiet faith.

Covid of course has put us in a place where that’s what we are left with in the world of faith.  Churches are closed.  Organised and institutional religion can’t function as it usually does.  A priest writing in the Irish Times recently said, ‘The pandemic means religion for religion’s sake is gone. That’s not a bad thing.  Leadership will not come from a moribund clerical caste, but from those who must now step up to the bar’

None of us can know what the long-term impact on faith and faith communities is going to be.  But I suspect that there is going to be, as that article suggested, something of a shake-out.  Authenticity will trump tradition.  The spiritual will outweigh the institutional.  Spontaneity and the personal will outdistance routine.

I haven’t mentioned the snakes – because of course St Patrick is also celebrated for getting rid of snakes from Ireland.  And that is seen as symbolising the driving away of evil.

So Patrick can also stand for better and more wholesome lifestyles

We are just beginning the long process of coming out of lockdown.  We crave social contact, friendships and ultimately the ability to move around.  But it won’t just be the same.  We are living in a time which gives us the opportunity of rediscovering simplicity –greener lifestyles, better relationships, a focus on home as a place of family but also of work and learning – and maybe a little of Patrick’s spiritual simplicity. 

Lockdown – gilded cage for some

I’ve now lost track of how long we’ve been in lockdown.  We miss the stimulation of social contact.   I devour the papers.  l read a lot.  We trawl Netflix and the rest hoping – usually in vain – for diversion.  We try to have a walk most days.  I’ve been decorating in our house. 

Beyond that, we look after our grandchildren as we are allowed to do.  And we Zoom with friends.  

We may be bored.  But it’s a privileged lifestyle in retirement,  We live more simply than usual and we spend less.  Our pensions keep coming.  We aren’t unemployed or likely to be so.   We aren’t struggling to keep a business which we have built up afloat.  We are fortunate

Irish Times journalist Una Mullally wrote recently that,

The divide is between those who have not been financially hit by the pandemic and those who have not just been financially devastated, but have seen their livelihoods implode

But perhaps the greatest social, cultural and political force right now, and into the future, is resentment. Resentment is a potent force and sometimes lacks a basis in reality, gets weaponised and finds the wrong targets. But this time it’s authentic.’

This is bad enough when we are still in the midst of the pandemic.  But it has profound implications in the post-Covid world.  Things surely will not just ‘go back to normal’.  Some like the retired and those who have been paid by the government will continue to be relatively secure and will enter the post-Covid world with some reserves accumulated when we didn’t have much to spend money on.

Those for whom Covid has brought financial disaster will start in the new post-Covid world at a significant disadvantage – and they will have to rebuild not just their finances but their initiative and their hope.’

This is inequality – and to some extent injustice.  It certainly strikes at the ‘we’re all in this together’ narrative.  Plainly we aren’t – and there are all the other differences as well .. big houses and small apartments, for example

Writing in the Church Times (19 February) Bishop Peter Selby drew attention to the Financial Conduct Authority forecast that ‘

one in three adults is likely to cut back on essentials; one in ten to will use a foodbank; one quarter will be financially vulnerable, and one eighth will face increased debts — all increases of about 15 per cent on pre-pandemic levels. At the same time, the charity sector has been hit by a tidal wave of demand and a serious reduction in income.

I’m not quite sure where this leads. But it certainly suggests to me that, when the economy opens up again, people who have been financially secure during lockdown need to think about the impact of their spending on jobs. Those who have suffered need to be able to rebuild as quickly as possible.