A government that cannot understand its own statistics cannot understand the reality of poverty

News release from the Methodist Church media service:

‘Let’s get the facts straight’. Yes, Mr Cameron, please do.

  • Government stats misleading on Monday, wrong on Wednesday
  • Prime Minister neither understands his own figures nor the real consequences of welfare reform, say Churches

Four major British Churches have criticised David Cameron for neither understanding his Government’s own figures nor recognising the reality of more and more people facing destitution.
The Church of Scotland, Baptist Union of Great Britain, Methodist Church, United Reformed Church and charity Housing Justice, which collectively represent more than a million people, have responded to an article by the Prime Minister in today’s Daily Telegraph. In the piece, Mr Cameron claims that the number of workless households doubled over the last decade, when ONS data shows that they increased from 3.7 million in 1997 to 3.9 million in 2010, not 7.4 million as his claim would suggest.

“Mr Cameron repeats tired and discredited numbers which paint an inaccurate picture of ‘welfare dependent’ families spending years on benefits and receiving huge amounts of money,” said Paul Morrison, Public Issues Policy Adviser and author of The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty, a report dispelling six common myths about poverty.

The Prime Minister stated that that almost a million and a half people spent the last decade out of work. He did not mention that most of these people were sick or carers. Only 1,000 were unemployed for a decade – the remainder were unable to work due to illness or caring responsibilities. According to the government’s own statistics, more people received benefits due to terminal illness and yet survived for a decade, than were unemployed for a decade.

He also spoke of people claiming ‘unlimited amounts of housing benefit’ and yet in 2010 only 0.01% of households received more than £40,000 in housing benefit. In the same year, more than half of housing benefit claims were for less than £4,000 for the year.
“If Mr Cameron can’t even understand his own figures, how will he ever grasp the reality of UK poverty?” added Mr Morrison. “We have spent this past year campaigning and writing to Mr Cameron and his ministers about how his Government’s misuse of statistics denigrates the poor – and we have yet to receive either explanation or correction.

“It is disappointing that the response to the Archbishop has been characterised by misleading numbers from the DWP Press Office on Monday and straightforwardly untrue numbers from the Prime Minister on Wednesday.

“Last year half a million people relied on foodbanks, this year we expect that number to be much higher. The key question – why Churches and charities are seeing more people in abject destitution – remains unanswered.

“Mr Cameron says he wants to stick to the facts, and that is the fact he urgently needs to address.”

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Food review: Retro Fondue and Your Bike Shed, York

As well as ruins, walls and old churches one thing York has in abundance is coffee shops, tea shops and cafes. There are of course the usual chains such as Costa, Starbucks and Nero. But there are also plenty of independents including institutions such as Betty’s (which we never managed to visit as there was always a long queue, and British though I am, I do object to queuing in the rain). Even independent coffee/tea shops can seem rather formulaic. But there are two cafes we visited in York which really seem to have something original to offer. It was only after talking with the staff that we discovered that, coincidentally, both are newly opened ventures.

The first was Retro Fondue. If the name isn’t enough of a clue, then the bright orange logo and seventies style furniture rather gives it away. The cafe is an homage to anything that can be dunked, whether it is the original Swiss conception of dipping savoury stuff on the end of forks into melted cheese, dunking sweet things into chocolate or even their own take on nachos.

Retro Fondue

Mary Ann in her retro parka outside Retro Fondue

We enjoyed Retro Fondue so much we went twice. On the first occasion we had a seafood fondue for two. This came with seafood (mussels, squid and other aquatic creatures I can’t now recall) predunked in the sauce, but plenty of bread on the side. With our traditional fondue forks it was a bit like spear fishing on a very small scale. The thing about fondue is  it’s a fun and sociable way of eating – the last time we ate like this was in the Philippines at a shabu-shabu restaurant. And because it is an unhurried way of eating it is also surprisingly filling. It was certainly a good choice for a light lunch.

Chrros at retro Fondue

Mmm… churros

On the second occasion I had a craving for churros. If you are not familiar with churros, they are a variation on doughnuts. (I thought they originated in Mexico until I looked on Wikipedia which suggests they were originally from Portugal or Spain). The design of churros is very clever – they have lots of ridges which makes them ideal for dipping in chocolate sauce. the trick of course is to get the churro in your mouth before dripping chocolate all down your front. Otherwise there’s not much you can say about churros – the churros at Retro Fondue were freshly made and the chocolate sauce was suitably rich and chocolately.

Not only is the food good at Retro Fondue, but the prices are very reasonable. The cost of a Fentiman’s lemonade was, if I remember correctly, £1.65. I sound them being sold for a higher price in a store up the road. I asked if there were any other branches (hoping that there might be one somewhere in London) which is when I discovered that this was the only branch and it had only opened a couple of weeks previously. However they are actively marketing Retro Fondue as a franchise opportunity. I hope they do well and one day I get a branch a bit more local than York.

Retro Fondue is on Goodramgate, which is on the east side of York city centre, not far from the Minster. The other cafe we visited is on the opposite side, on Micklegate. We had spent the morning doing a very convoluted walk around the city, following the city walls anticlockwise from Lendal Bridge to the Bishopgate St bridge, up to the castle, down to Ousegate, back over the river and up Micklegate. By then we were gasping for something to drink, and were surprised by the lack of cafes in this, admittedly more residential, part of the city. We were just about to give up when we saw a cafe ahead of us. This was Your Bike Shed, which is described on its website as “is an exciting new place where cycling and café culture meet in one relaxed and friendly environment”. Basically it’s a cafe with a bike repair shop attached, or possibly a bike repair shop with a cafe attached. An unusual feature of the cafe is the indoor bike rack by the front door. In fact, most of the patrons (including us) looked like they arrived on foot rather than by bike, but no matter – it was a wet Monday afternoon and the place was really busy. A enjoyed a good cup of coffee and a decent pasty. The milk shake was a bit disappointing though – I was expecting a thick shake but this was just flavoured milk – admittedly freshly made. Not quite as good value for money as Retro Fondue, but a nice ambiance and an enjoyable place to spend an hour on a wet afternoon.

Apparently Your Bike Shed opened in November and it’s obviously doing well. I hope both cafes continue to thrive and are still there for us to visit next time we are in York.

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Preaching houses and cathedral choirs

Last week we took a short break of four nights in the beautiful and historic city of York. This was a gift from my parents; a much-delayed 25th wedding anniversary present. Mary Ann had never been to York before and the last time I was there was in 1984 with a group of students from Nottingham University who went to see the Mystery Plays. I don’t recall how much sightseeing we did then; as I found York totally unfamiliar, probably not very much.

We stayed at the Best Western Monkbar Hotel just outside the city walls, which turned out to be a good choice. It was a great base for exploring the city. Although the weather was pretty wet, it meant we could easily go back and forwards to the hotel to rest and/or dry off.

There were a number of places and attractions we wanted to see, and we managed them all: the Minster, the city walls, the Jorvik Viking centre and the National Railway Museum. But we also enjoyed the atmosphere of the Shambles and the surrounding centre with its many surviving mediaeval and Tudor shops and churches.

As we were there over the weekend, on Sunday we went to church. In the morning we attended worship at Central Methodist Church in St Saviourgate. Built in 1840 in neoclassical style, one enters through an imposing portico with four pillars. Inside is a traditional nonconformist preaching house with an oval gallery and box pews that can seat a congregation of 1,500. The focal point of the church is a mahogany pulpit which was apparently reduced in height for the Wesleyan Conference of 1907 and above it an even more impressive organ, also finished in mahogany, which according to the church’s website has 2,500 pipes. Expertly played, this provided a fitting accompaniment to worship, alongside the small choir that sang an introit and led the congregational singing. Inevitably the congregation today does not even begin to fill this splendid chapel, but has done a splendid job of keeping it in good repair. After the service we enjoyed fellowshipping with the church members over a cup of coffee.

York Central Methodist Church

The very impressive portico of York Central Methodist Church

 

 

York Central Methodist Church

York Central Methodist Church – the view from the back pew

There could hardly have been a greater contrast with the second service we attended, which was evensong in York Minster. We had visited the minster the previous day and done the tour of this magnificent building. On Sunday we returned for worship.

For evensong the whole congregation was seated in the choir. There were many seats available so we picked a spot right next to the choir. We were sitting opposite an older gentleman who was obviously a regular congregant and followed his cues when to stand up and sit down. The choir was, of course, superb. I didn’t recognise any of the settings, but then I am an infrequent visitor to choral evensong. The sermon was preached by the Dean, the Very Reverend Vivienne Faull, and was on the subject of music. Taking her cue from the first reading (Ecclesiastes 3 ‘there is a time for everything…) She spoke about the importance of pauses and silences within the liturgy – the words are not just to be rushed through in the shortest time – and likened this to the rhythm of life and the importance of making time and finding space.

It so happened that in our position facing ‘sideways’ across the choir the pulpit was behind us and to our left, which meant that we could only see the preacher if we were willing to put up with a crick in the neck – very different from the Methodist chapel, which was designed with all eyes on the pulpit. Different styles of worship have a profound influence on different styles of church architecture, and you don’t get much more different than a neoclassical preaching house and a gothic cathedral choir. We enjoyed both types of church and both types of worship. York Minster was special, and the quality of singing technically superior to that in the Methodist chapel. But I missed the fellowship that we found in the morning with the people of Central Methodist. And for me, the tradition of singing just one congregational hymn at the close of evensong just isn’t enough. I love to listen to a good choir. But I also want to sing along.

York Minster

York Minster

 

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Baby Jesus is missing!

My sermon for Christmas Day – with thanks to Revd Dr Janet H. Hunt (Dancing with the Word) for suggesting the theme and for several quotations.

Now that our children are grown up, we don’t try quite so hard with our Christmas decorations. Yes, we have a tree, and we always get a real tree – I guess because my family had a real tree when I was a boy and you know how Christmas traditions tend to stick in families. Or perhaps it’s because Mary Ann comes from the Philippines and the only Christmas trees there are artificial, so a real tree is really something special.

Anyhow, whatever the reason, we have a tree. And we always have two other things. Above our front door we have a star shaped lantern. Every home in the Philippines has one of these, whether it’s a humble construction of cane and tissue paper, or a more extravagant affair with flashing lights and bright colours. In fact the province that Mary Ann comes from is famous as the home of the star lantern, or parol, as it’s called in the Philippines. The main roads going into the cities are lined with little shacks where the parols are both made and sold. All lit up, at night time they make a beautiful display.

And the third decoration we have also comes from the Philippines, and that is a nativity scene. We bought ours from a craft fair a few years ago and it is slightly unusual. All the figures are turned from different types of wood and they are simple and abstract rather than ornate. Not only are there all the usual suspects – shepherds, wise men, the ox and ass – and, of course the holy family – but there’s a stable with two doves on the roof, a couple of palm trees and above it all, a star. In the Philippines they call a nativity scene a Belen, which is simply the Spanish word for Bethlehem.

We also have a nativity set in the church – can you see it? Let’s check if everything is there…

A couple of weeks ago I was at an event in a church hall, where there was a very nice tree and a nativity set. But something didn’t look quite right – what was in the manger? Instead of baby Jesus, there was a little piece of paper with a face drawn on it! What has happened to baby Jesus, I asked. Oh – he’s gone missing, they said.

Continue reading

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Isaiah and Interfaith Week

Recently I was asked to speak at an event at Islington Town Hall to mark Interfaith Week. I was one of four faith leaders invited to give a short presentation on our faith communities’ engagement with local communities. I spoke about Archway Methodist Church as a community space and the work of Second Chance shop. Mohammed Kozbar, the chair of the Finsbury Park mosque told us about their efforts to build bridges into the community and their work with young people, Buddhist Mogdala of the Amida Trust spoke of her work with people suffering from mental illness and Mark Brennan from CARIS Islington talked about the Islington Cold Weather Shelter project.

After each of us had made our presentation there was a short question and answer session. One question was about how we overcome differences in order to work together. Mark spoke very powerfully about his experience with cold weather shelters and the relationships that naturally develop between volunteers (of all faiths and none) and the guests. This confirmed my own experience of working with community networks, that we do not need to overcome our differences to work together, but by working together we overcome our differences.

Coincidentally, the week before the Old Testament lectionary passage was Isaiah 65:17-25. Originally addressed to the post-exilic inhabitants of Jerusalem struggling to rebuild their shattered city, this is a prophecy of a restored community. “I am building a new heavens and a new earth” says God through the prophet, but this is a much more down to earth vision than the more familiar ‘new heavens and new earth’ of Revelation chapter 21. There are four components of Isaiah’s vision: children will live to adulthood; adults will live to a ripe age; people shall build houses and live in them; people shall plant trees and crops and enjoy their fruit. We can imagine how truly attractive this vision of peace and stability must have been to the community trying to rebuild Jerusalem, and it still speaks powerfully today. These are basic human aspirations that transcend faith, culture and time.

A few years ago this passage from Isaiah came to the attention of evangelist Raymond Fung. Fung was looking for biblical texts which could inform the mission of the Church today. He realised that the ‘Isaiah Vision’ could form an agenda for mission. Furthermore this was not an exclusively Christian agenda; it was a basis on which Christians could work alongside other people of goodwill for the transformation of communities. Once Christians and non-Christians are working together and building up relationships of trust, new possibilities arise, such as sharing our faith stories and celebrating transformation through prayer and worship.

If Fung is right (and my own experience suggests that he is), then community engagement is not an alternative to mission and evangelism, but a vital part of it. We should seek alliances with churches, faith groups, community organisations and local authorities – wherever there is agreement about the aspirations and goals of the ‘Isaiah Vision’. For the Isaiah Vision is no less than God’s intention for people and for communities.

 

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Prayer for the Philippines

Last Friday we flew back from the Philippines after a two week vacation; the next day typhoon Haiyan (known as Yolanda in the Philippines) made landfall, carving a path of destruction across the Visayan region and particularly devastating the islands of Leyte and Samar. The scale of the disaster (an estimated 10,000 dead) has brought it to the attention of the world’s media and the international community. The UK has pledged £6m of immediate assistance and other nations are offering similar amounts to what is going to be a massive rescue mission, followed by an even larger period of reconstruction. The UN has estimated that 600,000 people have been displaced by the storm; many of them have no homes to return to.

The imminent arrival of Haiyan/Yolanda had dominated the news in the Philippines throughout the second week we were there, with the government determined to do all it could in terms of preparedness. Emergency supplies were flown in before the typhoon struck and attempts made to evacuate areas considered to be particularly vulnerable. Warnings were even made about the likely ‘storm surge’; however no one seems to have anticipated its tsunami-like effect. This seems to have been one of the major causes of death in the town of Tacloban and surrounding areas. Before the typhoon struck, President Aquino had suggested that with sufficient preparedness, they were aiming for zero casualties; in retrospect this seems sadly misguided.

Since we arrived back from the Philippines many friends have asked about us, and whether Mary Ann’s family are safe. In fact the typhoon passed well south of her home province of Pampanga. We do, however, have many friends who come from the Western Visayas and who have reported damage to property, though nothing on the scale of the eastern islands of Leyte and Samar.

On Sunday I was back leading worship and of course it was Remembrance Sunday. At the evening service at Caledonian Road Methodist Church I read Psalm 46, which because of verses 9-10 is very much associated with this day. But it was verses 2-3 that caught my attention:

…we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of sea;
though its waters roar and foam…

In this time the faith of the Filipino people, and particularly those in the regions most effected by the typhoon, will be shaken to its very core. Disasters on this scale do raise serious questions for people of faith, especially those Christians who believe that God micro-manages the world and that ‘everything happens for a purpose’. I have to admit that I can see no purpose at all in the loss of 10,000 lives, but that has not stopped some speculating that this is a punishment visited upon the Filipino people, some sort of divine warning.

In fact Haiyan/Yolanda may well be a warning – of increasingly extreme weather brought about by climate change and in particular the warming of the oceans. Ocean warming is already causing irreparable damage to the coral reefs that lie off the shores of the Philippine islands; now it is possible that warmer water is intensifying the typhoons that so frequently sweep over the Philippines (it is the heat of the water that provides the energy that fuels the typhoon). If this is correct, Haiyan may be the most devastating typhoon to hit the Philippines in modern times, but it will, alas, not be the last.

With that rather lengthy introduction, here is my prayer for the Philippines:

God, our shelter and strength
and ever-present help in times of trouble,
we pray for the people of the Philippines,
living in a land of such natural abundance and diversity
yet so vulnerable to the devastating effects of volcano, earthquake and storm.

Lord, we have seen pictures of the destruction brought by typhoon Haiyan
and heard stories told by the survivors that move us to tears.
We find it hard to comprehend that nature has such dreadful power,
breaking trees like matchsticks,
sweeping away homes and shattering lives
and bringing such desolation to cities and villages alike.

And so, Father,
we weep with those who weep,
praying for those who survived and those who did not;
for those who lost everything
and those who saw their homes and livelihoods destroyed.

We pray for relief workers, aid organisations and government agencies
as they attempt to meet people’s present needs
and for the longer term restoration of buildings and communities
that will take place in the coming weeks, months and years.

And, Creator God, we recognise our own role in such ‘natural’ disasters;
the impact of our wasteful lifestyles on this fragile planet
and our contribution to the warming of the world’s oceans.
We pray that the nations of the world
would take heed of the warning signs of climate change
and make greater efforts to decisive action
and sustainable ways of living.

Lord, bless the Philippines;
save her people;
in the name of Jesus,
whom even wind and waves obey.

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Hymn of the week: I will sing the wondrous story

‘I will sing the wondrous story’ was written by Baptist pastor Francis H. Rowley. In his own words:

I was minister of the First Baptist Church of North Adams [Massachusetts] at the time the hymn was written in 1886, as nearly as I can remember. The church and the community were experiencing a period of unusual interest in religious matters, and I was as­sist­ed by a remarkable young singer named Peter Bilhorn. One night after the close of the service he said, “Why don’t you write a hymn for me to set to music?” During the night these most unpretentious and wholly unworthy verses came to me. (Quoted on cyberhymnal.org)

The following year Rowley’s words, set to Bilhorn’s music, were published in Ira Sankey’s Sacred Songs and Solos. Sankey made a number of unauthorised alterations to the words, with the result that the hymn is found today in a number of different versions. After its publication by Sankey the hymn became known on both sides of the Atlantic, as Rowley himself discovered:

Some years ago as I was going down a London street one night about eleven o’clock, I discovered ahead of me a group of Salvation Army people holding a service, and as I came nearer to them it occurred to me that the hymn they were singing was familiar. Then it dawned upon me that it was this one.

In Britain, Bilhorn’s music has been completedly displaced by two Welsh hymn tunes: Calon Lan and Hyfrydol. In some hymnals (for example, Songs of Fellowship) the refrain has been reduced to a sixth verse, thus allowing the entire hymn to be sung as three eight-line verses.

Rowley’s hymn is particularly appropriate for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time year C, when the Gospel reading is Luke 15:1-10 (the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin). The first of these parables is explicitly mentioned in the second verse.

Below is the version of the hymn as found in Hymns and Psalms. This follows Rowley’s original hymn more closely than most other versions found on the internet.

I will sing the wondrous story
Of the Christ who died for me,
How he left the realms of glory
For the cross on Calvary:

Yes, I’ll sing the wondrous story
Of the Christ who died for me,
Sing it with his saints in glory,
Gathered by the crystal sea.

I was lost; but Jesus found me,
Found the sheep that went astray,
Raised me up, and gently led me
Back into the narrow way:

Faint was I, and fears possessed me,
Bruised was I from many a fall;
Hope was gone, and shame distressed me;
But his love has pardoned all:

Days of darkness still come o’er me;
Sorrow’s paths I often tread;
But the Saviour still is with me,
By his hand I’m safely led:

He will keep me till the river
Rolls its waters at my feet;
Then he’ll bear me safely over,
Where the loved ones I shall meet:

Francis H. Rowley (1854-1952)

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