Christmas Day

Lunchtime walk, evening meal. Seen at 1pm on the Exminster Marshes, and the Exe Canal and Estuary around the Turf Hotel and Topsham: one heron; two cormorants, and at least one other on a loop, maybe more; two mute swans, another two mute swans; teal and shelduck; Mr & Mrs Merganser fishing by the lock; small flock of and scattered avocet; many many probably sanderlings, like midges across the mud’s surface; redshanks and curlews; grey plover, we thought; various herring, black-headed, greater black-backed gulls; something startled, with a striking white bar on its black tail; various coots, mallards, robins, magpies, pigeons, small brown birds; two interweaving flocks of lapwing; one angler; two canoeists; mum, dad, daughter and miserable-looking son-in-law; several dog walkers and cyclists. Heard likewise: the call of an oystercatcher.


Great expectations

In his sermon this morning, Andrew spoke about expectations with reference to the appointment of the new Dean. We tend to hope that the new person will come in and sort out all our issues and weaknesses and lead us forward to success and the promised land. Andrew warned us that this won’t happen. I can confirm that it doesn’t happen in the civil service either, and it doesn’t happen when a new government is elected (I’m thinking of 1997 here; my expectations of 2010 have sadly been met and more). My memory of his sermon gets pretty hazy here, but Andrew may well have said something along the lines that God works in the unexpected, never more than in the Incarnation.

In the discussion afterwards, one of the congregation who is a teacher said that expectation can be good; having high expectations of students can lead them to do better. People in general tend to live up to or down to expectations. The problem is when the expectations are unrealistic.

I remembered something I have learnt during the last few months of centring prayer. Previously, I thought of contemplative prayer as waiting in expectation for God, and remember reading of intercessory prayer that we should always ask in expectation that God will answer. Well yes. But the American Cisterican monk Thomas Keating teaches in Open Mind, Open Heart: “Have no expectation in [centring] prayer. It’s an exercise of effortlessness, of letting go. To try is a thought [that is, a distraction]… To struggle is to want to achieve something. That is to aim at the future, whereas this method of prayer is designed to bring you into the present moment. Expectations also refer to the future; hence they, too, are thoughts.”

So rather than living in expectation and the future, I more than anything need to live in openness and the present moment. It was written for use at Easter, but this prayer by Janet Morley seems apposite this Advent too: “O unfamiliar God, we seek you in the places you have already left and fail to see you even when you stand before us. Grant us so to recognise your strangeness that we need not cling to our familiar grief, but may be freed to proclaim resurrection in the name of Christ. Amen.”


It’s time to start blogging again…

… now that I’ve been back in Exeter for nearly two weeks, and unpacked pretty much all my boxes

Yesterday, I went to a service at the Cathedral celebrating the silver jubilee of Canon Carl Turner’s priesting. The preacher was Raymond Avent, who I got to know at Mucknell Abbey. It’s a small world. He preached wonderfully on three words: one unambiguous word – the “fiat” uttered by Mary, “let it be to me according to your word”; and two ambiguous words that have changed their meaning and are often used unhelpfully – “priest” and “laity”. To summarise part of his message, hopefully without misrepresenting… All members of the body of Christ are priests, not just the ordained; we are members of the priesthood of all believers. Likewise, all members of the body of Christ are also members of the laity; the word derives from the Greek laos, the people of God.

What does this mean for the churchgoer in the pew? Well, there’s a lot of variation between churches, but here are five Don’ts.

  1. Don’t expect the clergy to do everything
  2. Don’t think that you can’t do anything
  3. Don’t think that only initiatives organised by the clergy are worth supporting
  4. Don’t think that all church activities must be authorised by the clergy 
  5. Don’t say that you don’t have a voice

The media only quotes archbishops and canon-resignees on the big issues of the day, but we all have a voice. And nowadays, in this time of social media, we don’t have to wait for the ‘established’ media to pick up our message. We can all have a jolly good rant on our blogs!

… which brings me on to what I want to say about Occupy Exeter.

The camp on the Cathedral Green was set up while I was still living elsewhere, but I was following it on Facebook. I confess I was initially underwhelmed. I was mainly disappointed that they ended up on the Green and not in Princesshay, a ‘perfect’ example of capitalism’s privatisation of public space and limitation of the right to public assembly. Land Securities would have had them evicted immediately. I thought they were being chicken, but maybe it a question of being realistic. It’s definitely not being chicken to live in tents at this time of year, even during the day; it’s rained all week, today is bitterly cold, and the Green is a very effective wind tunnel. (Aside: If the Cathedral ever has them evicted from the Green, it would reflect really really badly on the Cathedral; much worse than it would on Land Securities if they ever camped in and were evicted from Princesshay. Probably because of expectations, which in a sense is good, but it strikes me as yet another example of the 99% being dumped on.)

I’m in favour of peaceful and respectful (no swinging on the Cenotaph) direct action. The Occupy movement has for the most part been these, as well as creative and inclusive. I agree with whoever wrote that the camps are the movement’s message and demands. Not everyone likes the way Occupy is going about things. I don’t agree with everything they say and do. But it is time to protest and to build a movement, and Occupy is currently it.

The first reading at this morning’s services included: “[David] the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’ ” (2 Sam 7:2; NRSV). It was a fairly obvious reflection to link this with the Occupy tents just the other side of the facing wall. God’s response was “Are you the one to build me a house to live in?” (v.5). The danger of building temples is that they are then treated as God’s particular or even only dwelling place, whereas God is both in Exeter Cathedral, and in the Occupy tents, not to mention everywhere, including in people with whom I agree and disagree.

The gospel reading was the annunciation to Mary. Andrew preached on invasion or invitation, expectations or the unexpected, and made mention of Occupy. On the third Sunday in the month, there is a discussion of the sermon after coffee. This time, the discussion was pretty lively, with opinions on Occupy voiced across the whole spectrum. One very negative response, already forceably expressed to the camp, was along the lines that it is a ridiculous thing to do; why should anyone take any notice and how could it possibly help; and so on. One thing I wish I’d thought of: it probably seemed ridiculous to chain yourself to railings or throw yourself under a horse, and I would disagree with some of the more violent actions of the suffragettes, but I am immensely grateful to them for my vote.

So far since I’ve been back, I’ve been rushing into and out of town, but tomorrow I plan to pop in to Occupy Exeter and say hello.


Reading to know we are not alone, part 2

Giles Fraser, erstwhile Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, has a regular column in the Church Times. On 28 October 2011, written before but published after his resignation, he wrote: “one of the most interesting things about these challenging times is how scripture comes alive. Indeed, I do not remember the Bible ever speaking to me as vividly as it does today. As the saying goes, I don’t read scripture: scripture reads me.”

He may have been using the ancient and modern monastic practice of lectio divina, which is one means of opening ourselves to God’s word. Lectio divina can be loosely translated as ‘spiritual reading’, but does not just involve reading. It consists of four movements: lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio.

Lectio is the slow, attentive reading of the chosen scriptural passage, and noting of words or phrases that grasp the attention. Meditatio is the pondering over the text, ruminating on it in God’s presence, maybe focusing on one of these words. In oratio, we allow the text or word to sink into our deepest selves, and allow God to work through them for healing and wholeness. And then all things fall away, and we remain in contemplatio, a simple, wordless contemplation of God and a resting in God’s presence. It is not always that ordered, and sometimes lectio might lead straight to contemplatio, for example.

Ideally, lectio divina is practised at a regular time, daily if possible. The scriptural text should be chosen in advance, and might be the gospel for the day set in the lectionary. The place should be free from distractions, and some visual focus might be helpful. It is important to spend some time in transition from daily activity to the time of prayer, maybe through focusing on the breathing and a prayer for the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

At Mucknell Abbey, I learnt a practice of corporate lectio divina, a weekly gathering for prayer and sharing of insights about Sunday’s gospel reading. We spent 45 minutes together:

  • Start with a moment of recollection.
  • The leader reads the passage through, pauses for a moment and reads it again.
  • In turn, each member of the group shares the word or phrase that has struck them. Anyone may simply “pass” if they wish.
  • The leader reads the passage for the third time, after which there is a silence for 10 minutes during which people are free to remain seated or go to wherever they wish to ponder/sit with the text in whatever way they wish.
  • Once everyone has returned the passage is read again, after which every member of the group, in turn, shares whatever they wish. Each must feel free simply to say “pass”.
  • When everyone has had the chance to share, the leader invites the group to pray for the person on her/his right for the space of a minute, after which there is the opportunity for a general sharing.
  • End with the Grace or Lord’s Prayer.

Reading to know we are not alone, part 1

In the film Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis is given the words “we read to know we are not alone”. They may well have been his words, probably from An Experiment in Criticism.

We might also read to gain knowledge, and even if we can’t remember what we read, hopefully we can remember where we read it, so we can go back to it later. Or we might read so we get high percentages in one of those “how many of the BBC’s Top 100 Books have you read?” polls, or to appear well-read at dinner parties, and there are many aids to faking the latter.

I am pretty well read, in theory. In practice, I remember very little of what I’ve read. I read quite quickly, but even if I read slowly I wouldn’t remember what I’ve read. But this means that I get the pleasure of reading a good book twice, and it doesn’t matter whether I recall the ending as I read, because I can appreciate the journey again. So my reading resembles my experience a little. Thankfully, we don’t have all our memories in front of us all the time. But we receive a trigger – a sight, smell or sound – and memories flood back. “Do you remember when…?” Although it would be useful to retain some memories, so I can learn from my mistakes.

Reading can also create experience. Scientists have found that “when we read a story and really understand it, we create a mental simulation of the events described by the story”. It is as though reading a novel or biography adds to our experience of the world, a safe way of trying things out, though it shouldn’t substitute for real experience.

Lewis also wrote of “the few” and “the many” readers. “The few” are those who seek out space to read, who must read, who often re-read books, and who are open to being deeply changed by what they read. “The many” read when there is nothing else claiming their attention, do not re-read, and show no sign of being  changed by what they read.

As I’m considering where and what next, I’m reading and re-reading books by people who have similar interests: who have or are seeking a sense of place; who are living and working prophetically; who have experienced the struggles and sometimes the successes. I am not reading in order to follow their example or recreate what they are doing, but because their stories change me. I learn that I am not alone, that I am not particularly special or different, that others doubt and lack confidence and have struggles too. And that somehow gives me hope and the energy to persevere a while longer.


On speed

On 29 September, Phil Hammond, the then Transport Secretary, proposed increasing the speed limit on motorways to 80mph. We’ve been here before. In 2002, the Commons Transport Select Committee looked at raising the limit but decided against the move because it would result in a 5-10% increase in casualties on motorways. We may as well, mayn’t we? After all, Department for Transport figures show that as many as 49% of drivers currently flout the current 70mph limit. But on the other hand, road safety charity Brake claims a move to 80mph would see speeds on Britain’s motorways pushed ever higher.

Higher speeds would lead to more accidents, and more serious accidents. Remember v2 = u2 + 2as and E = ½ mv2 from your school physics? Stopping distances increase according to the square of your speed. Likewise the energy of a collision. The Association of British Drivers says despite the UK’s motorways being significantly busier than other European motorways, there are far fewer fatalities. It seems to me that setting lower speed limits, in order to keep traffic flowing on busier roads (e.g. on the M25), could well be the reason that fatalities are lower.

Seven people died in the terrible multiple pile-up on the M5 near Somerset, and 51 people were injured. If Justine Greening, the new Transport Secretary, goes ahead with the increase in the speed limit, so this sort of event becomes more likely, I wonder how she would sleep at night. And then if – when – it happens again, how will she look the families of the victims in the eye?

But of course, the policy is not about road safety. It is about increasing tax revenues, a ‘stealth tax’ if you like. Most cars are most fuel efficient at a speed between 40-60 mph. Supposing a car has its highest mpg at 55 mph, then it will be 17% less efficient at 70 mph and 28% less efficient at 80 mph, i.e. will use 15% more fuel for the same journey at 80 mph than at 70 mph. That’s 15% more fuel duty revenue into the Treasury coffers. It will be needed to fund the extra cost to the NHS and emergency services.

It’s also a 15% increase in carbon emissions, at a time when we urgently need to reduce them.


Community Energy Schemes

Community renewable energy schemes, which are registered for Feed-in-Tariffs, summed and mapped by postcode districts. Click on the dot for information on the installed capacity of each technology.
Red: 0-10 kW
Yellow: 10-20 kW
Green: 20+ kW
Data source: Ofgem.


Sharing stuff and working together, part 2

More and more websites are being developed that are enabling people to share and work together. And the best are bringing people together in real life too. In Part 1, I looked at websites like LETS and Freecycle that help you share stuff and skills. In this post, I’m looking more at encouraging each other and working together on a common goal.

“I’ve got this great idea, but I need other people to help me make it happen” If We Ran the World aims to help people with good intentions and broad visions turn them into “tangible, do-able microactions that anyone and everyone can help you to do. All of us can achieve more than one of us, and everything starts with a microaction.” Its home page is an almost blank screen with the challenging… If I ran the world, I would What would you do? Then what small steps could you take to make it happen? What help would you need? And how could you help others?

“I’ll do it, but only if you do it too” PledgeBank allows users to set up pledges and then encourages other people to sign up to them. A pledge is a statement of the form ‘I will do something, if a certain number of people will help me do it’. The creator of the pledge then publicises their pledge and encourages people to sign up. We can’t be sure people will bother to carry out the pledge, but “We believe that if a person possesses a slight desire to do something, and then we help connect them to a bunch of people who also want to do the same thing, then that first person is much more likely to act.” The site provides guidance to help make your original pledge a success, and you can get a special version of PledgeBank for your organisation. Example of a successful pledge: “I will Put £100 into the fund for setting up the Healing Gardens Cooperative and to start the deposit for buying the Gardens Home house but only if 10 people connected with myself and the Retreat Centre or Gardens will do the same will do the same.” [Update: The PledgeBank website was closed in 2015.]

The rest really belonged in part 1, but anyway…

“There are too many cars on the road!” Liftshare helps people to travel more sustainably by sharing their journey. You can share a car on any journey you make, from the daily travel to work or the school run, to a one-off journey to a festival. You can even search for people to share a journey by taxi, bike or on foot.

“There’s a long waiting list for allotments, but I’m not doing anything with my garden” Landshare connects growers to people with land to share. It describes itself as “for people who: want to grow their own fruit and veg but don’t have anywhere to do it; have a spare bit of land they’re prepared to share; can help in some way – from sharing knowledge and lending tools to helping out on the plot itself; support the idea of freeing up more land for growing; are already growing and want to join in the community.” There’s a good map of Land offered, Growers and Helpers. Organisations can have their own area on the site, or you can get together with other members to form groups. [Update: Landshare has been closed too, but there are local schemes such as Dyfi Land Share in Machynlleth and Edinburgh Garden Partners. The Gardenshare scheme in Totnes is no more but the website still offers guidance to starting a local scheme.]


Sharing stuff and working together, part 1

So you want to simplify your lifestyle, and reach out to your neighbours and local community. Maybe you want to learn a new skill, or your drill has broken and you don’t want to splash out on a new one, or you have a drill gathering dust in the cupboard. Or you want to do something new, but it’s hard work to make things happen by yourself, and you would like the assurance that others share your vision or have the skills and willingness to help.

More and more websites are being developed that are enabling people to get in touch with each other. And the best are bringing people together in real life too.

“I want to share my stuff and skills with other people, and they have stuff and skills that I need too”

Local Exchange Trading Systems or Schemes have been around for a long time. They are local networks in which people exchange all kinds of goods and services with one another, without the need for money. LETS use a system of community credits, so that direct exchanges do not have to be made. People earn LETS credits by providing a service, and can then spend the credits on whatever is offered by others on the scheme: for example childcare, transport, food, home repairs or the hire of tools and equipment. And the service is usually valued by time, so for example an hour of childcare will ‘cost’ the same as an hour of home repairs. Contact details for LETS in Ox, Bucks and Berks.

Ecomodo lets you “lend and borrow each other’s everyday objects, skills and spaces with confidence.” They’ve thought carefully about the ‘with confidence’: the borrower and the item is rated after each transaction; lenders can request security deposits; they offer insurance. You can create a ‘lending circle’ in your neighbourhood, so it is closely tied to real world communities. For example, Low Carbon West Oxford has a lending circle. Update 20 March 2015: Ecomodo has now closed.

Bid & Borrow is very similar, but I think less user-friendly. Again, you can create a ‘sharing network’ in your neighbourhood, and on both sites you can post a wanted ad. Companies can advertise their goods for hire, but I think this detracts, and Bid & Borrow’s local search doesn’t work well. But still, there might be something you need here that isn’t on Ecomodo. Update 22 March 2016: Bid & Borrow has apparently closed.

Finally, there’s Streetbank. It’s the simplest of the sites, which might be a benefit. There are no lending circles; you get to see people within one mile of you, and all their things. There is no mention of ‘confidence’ or charging for items, but then maybe we need to trust people more and get away from money-based transactions. And you when you register, it is a condition that you add one thing that you would be prepared to help with, lend or give away; you can’t get away with not participating.

“I’ve got all this stuff I want to get rid of, but I don’t want it just to go into landfill”

Freecycle groups match people who have things they want to get rid of with people who can use them. You can either offer something, or post a ‘wanted’ message. They say: “Our goal is to keep usable items out of landfills… Another benefit of using Freecycle is that it encourages us to get rid of junk that we no longer need and promote community involvement in the process.” I wanted to get rid of the white gravel in my garden, so I offered it on Freecycle. Almost immediately, someone who wanted it got in contact, and they even took it all up for me! Freecycle groups in Ox, Bucks and Berks

There are websites which offer online swapping, such as Swapshop or a section of Gumtree. But there are also lots of swapshops happening in real life. There’s often no actual swapping involved. Just bring along stuff you don’t want and/or take away someone else’s stuff you do. Community Action Groups maintain a diary of swapshops in Oxfordshire. Is there anything similar in Berkshire or Buckinghamshire?




The Big Society meets the Great Vowel Shift

The Tories dropped the Big Society into their 2010 Manifesto, but have never explained satisfactorily what they meant. Here are some possible interpretations:

Bag Society?
Encouraging unfettered consumerism, such as taking away 6 billion single-use plastic bags from supermarkets every year, and worshipping at the altar of Gucci and Hermes.

Bug Society?
Installing CCTV cameras on every street corner and at a every water cooler, to detect when ministers’ unethical activity might become embarrassing, and keep track of anyone who considers the possibility of non-violent action.

Beg Society?
Cut-cut-cutting the safety net, so the 1% have the 99% where they want them.

Bog Society?
We’re all going down the pan.