Sunday, 27 January 2013

I have sympathy with Amazon, Google and Starbucks

Well, only to a point, of course. These companies - along with many others - have organised their affairs, come to agreements, planned their finances to pay very little tax in the UK (and other countries too. They just don't pay tax). They do this, of course, to maximise profits, and provide the highest possible earnings for the shareholders and directors. The people who make most of the decisions are also the ones who benefit from this and, like most people, they look to their own benefit. In this, I have no sympathy with them.

However I do find some sympathy with the idea of withholding tax from a government who seems to be behaving in the same way - managing the country's economics to the benefit of themselves and their friends. Those who argue for a boycott of Amazon because of their tax avoidance policies should also consider whether they should withhold taxes from the government who are refusing to support the NHS, those on benefits, those who are the poorest and most oppressed in our society. The principle is, surely, just the same. If you argue for boycotting one company, one organisation, because they are acting irresponsibly with their money, then surely it should also apply to others. If we object to Amazon, Google, Starbucks not taking their civil duties seriously, not fulfilling their duties where they conduct their business, then surely the government should also not be paid.

At the same time, there is news this week that J K Rowling has dropped out of the Forbes Billionaires list because she has given so much of her money away to charitable purposes. I mention her, because she is famously happy to pay her taxes. She is a person who seems to represent the true spirit of the rich, quite prepared to pay her civil duties, but also generous with her money. She stands out because she is pretty much unique in doing this.

I am not, I should point out, suggesting a mass non-payment of tax. I think there is another broader issue here. We cannot ignore the fact that many organisations are not cross-national (and many people too), and it is no longer appropriate to consider how to tax them in one country. We need to find ways of appropriately taxing trans-national entities, that provides appropriate commitment from companies, wherever they are based, and provides suitable contributions to the countries in which they operate. It is time to end the tax havens, where individuals and organisations can operate from purely for the purposes of avoiding paying tax.

It means that companies like Starbucks should have to pay whatever percent of their profits globally, irrespective of where they are based and where they operate. It means that this money should then be fed back to the countries in which they operate based on their taking in those countries.

It means that individuals should pay reasonable rates of tax on their earnings, and this should be paid back to the countries where they spend their time.

It is time that we accepted the impact of an increasingly small world, where sovereign states are no longer as significant as they were. Or rather, they are not the largest or most significant entity. A bigger picture needs to be taken. It is time to make the tax-avoiding tactics of those who can afford it a thing of the past.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Doing the same things, expecting different results

This is the classic definition of madness, and yet I have touched on it in a previous post, that the CofE seems to be doing this.

Some people will disagree with me, and point to new things that are being done by some people - all of the Fresh Expression work is often pointed to as new ideas and new innovations in worship and structure.

Which they are, but they are not enough. While they can be successful (Messy Church, for example), and/or highly innovative (which are the ones you have probably never heard of. Or at least, I haven't heard of them). But they are all, at heart, tweaking of the worship and meeting style of churches, without looking at the bigger picture. Tweaking with the style has been done for decades, and does not work longer term.

But the problems with the CofE are more fundamental than this. the problems are twofold, in my opinion (and that is all I post here, my own explorations of the topics that I cover. I am open to discussion!).

Firstly, the significant problems are not with the style of the meetings, the format of the worship. Yes, many of the ideas are good ones, but they are good ideas that need taking further. The core problems are with the system and structure of the church.

The second issue is related, because so many of the innovative ideas in the church at the moment are serving not as new expressions of the church, but as means of getting new people - and people who would not generally come into a church - into the existing structures. The problem is that these fresh expression need to be the church, not just support the church.

The core problem is that the existing church system is moribund and dying, One of the reasons for this is that the church continues to do the same things, and expects different results. If that isn't institutional madness, I don't know what is.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

No jobs for the boys - and girls?

There has been some discussion on my twitter feed about clergy who are finishing their curacies, and finding it very difficult to get another job. In many cases, this might involve them having to find another job - not to mention somewhere to live - until a suitable place becomes available.

The church's response to this appears to be "well, you knew this might happen", and leaving them to it. I think this shows a lack of responsibility on the part of the church, and I want to explore a little bit why I think this is an issue for the church as a whole. What is more, I think this is not limited to the CofE, as some similar form of the problem will be present in any church structure.

I have posted before about the nature of calling to priesthood, and how I struggle with it as a concept. This is continued because I see the CofE - in this sense - as an employer of clergy to fulfill certain roles within the organisation. Whether you like the organisation or not, its principles or aims, is irrelevant if you see it as an employer of people to fulfill its core purposes.

The problem with this perspective is that the organisation is shrinking - maybe collapsing. Looking at it as objectively as possible, they are not an employer that I would look at and consider a good prospect. I have worked for and looked at shrinking organisations, and they are not happy places to be.

Unfortunately, the selection process is, by and large, based on finding people who will fit in to the system as it is. In the current situation and environment, that is the wrong thing to do - if the church continues to do the same sort of things that it always has, the results will be the same as they are always have been - in this case, continued collapse. And I will post on this separately, because it is a longer thought train.

A few years ago, there was a number of comments and concerns that ordinands coming out of the colleges were struggling to find curacy positions. I presume that this is still an issue and a concern, and it is a problem, because most ordinands have given up their other work to do this, and they have often given up a house as well, because they are residential at college, and are normally expecting to have a house with the job when they are qualified. So to find themselves having spent this time studying and then not be able to find any work, they are stuck.

The problem, however, seems to have moved further along the line, where they are at the end of a curacy and then unable to find a new role. They are now at the far end of 5-7 years of specialised, vocational training - which means that they are probably completely out of touch with their former profession - and they are now finding there is nothing for them. They have undertaking this training period, and find that they are not needed.

So where does the responsibility lie here? Well employees of any organisation need to have a realistic perception of their possible future role an progress within the organisation. However, the CofE has helped and supported these people into a re-skilling exercise, training them for a job that only they have, and to then abandon them is not acceptable. If he training is going to be company-specific, then the company needs to have some guarantee of work at the end of it.

There are two changes that would help this. Either the "clerical" training needs to be generic, so that clergy can move to another church if there is shortage in the chosen place, or the church needs to guarantee to its ordinands a job. I cannot see either happening, because there are too many conservative influences.

However, this is an indicator of a more significant problem. When clergy move on, there are sometimes/often suggestions for merging parishes or other such reorganisation plans to reduce the number of clergy - because of financial pressures, and the shrinking congregational numbers. This means that the number of clergy positions is reducing - and this, in turn, means that clergy are less likely to move on to new places. There is a significant danger that clergy placings will tend to stagnate, meaning that there will be even more pressure on the first incumbency roles.

So what is the solution to this? Most organisations would tend to put higher value on their existing employees over new employees. Maybe the time is coming to stop taking on new ordinands, and concentrate on finding good and suitable roles for their existing clergy. Maybe it is time to accept that the church is shrinking substantially, and stop taking on new staff, but focus on making the best use of their existing people. But that would be an admission of failure, and is unlikely to happen.

So what is the answer to the curates who are unable to find incumbency roles to move on to? The answer will be found in not looking at this as a single problem, but as part of a much larger issue. The larger issue is that the church is shrinking substantially. The approach to staffing has not, seemingly, taken this into account. Finances have tended to drive the reduction in clergy places, but this is often done locally. The bigger picture, asking why they are continuing to recruit new people to a failing system, is not being asked.

At its heart, if the church is not prepared to look after its own, is not prepared to act as a responsible employer, then it is simply losing credibility. Any other organisation that was failing to look after its existing staff, but continuing to employee new ones, would come under serious scrutiny. Of course the church is not the same as other organisations, but as an employer, the problems currently being seen are an indication of a failing system. My call would be "look after your existing staff", and stop recruiting. I doubt whether that will be heeded. In fact, I doubt that anything will change until the situation gets very much worse.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Called to ministry?

I am in the process of putting together a difficult post about ministry in the CofE, but there is one area that warrants a separate post, I think, and that is the issue of calling to ministry.

I should point out two pertinent facts here. Firstly, I have been through the selection process in the CofE. This has two critical implications: Firstly, I do know something about the process, from the inside, and; I have some baggage from this, I am damaged and scarred by this process.

There is a problem that the only people who have any insight into the processing of the system, from the inside, are those for whom it has worked, and those for whom it hasn't and who may therefore feel aggrieved by it. What is more, in my experience, the ones whose opinions are taken are those for whom it has been successful, which is not a good way of assessing a process.

The second issue is that I have no problems with the sense of calling. I do believe that God calls people today, and, in fact, I believe that he calls many people in many different ways. What is more, I believe that this can lead people into the CofE priesthood.

The problem I have - and this is core to an understanding of calling - is that I am not sure that God calls a person into something as specific as the CofE priesthood. I believe that he calls people to minister to certain groups of people, to certain types of people, to particular people groups. It is also the case that the CofE has restricted certain types of ministry to the priesthood, and if God is calling you to a ministry that is covered by this, the priesthood may be a natural route to choose.

I know that some people will disagree with this. What is more, I know that there is a long history of a calling to the priesthood. None of which means that it is right, or that it is wrong. The problem that I have with this is that I do not see this "calling to the priesthood" in the Bible - and so I struggle to understand how come this new sense of calling is developed.

The Old Testament does not have any sense of "calling to the priesthood" - the truth is that if you were a Levite, you were part of the priestly tribe, and if you were a descendent of Aaron, you were in line for the high priest. There was no sense of being called to this - it was about being born to it.

The New Testament is not a lot more help. There are those who are chosen to be "leaders" of congregations and groups, often chosen by the group themselves, or picked by Paul on his travels, where he is starting new groups. But these are people chosen to lead a specific group at a particular time. It is only beyond the New Testament that a concept of a priest ordained by something other than a local community. But I am not certain that this is given the sense of a "calling" - it is important, it is serious, but is it a calling?

I do believe that I am called. I am called to minister to all the people that I meet. I am, I believe, specifically called to those on the edges of the church, to those for whom the church cannot reach. But I do not do this most of the time. Most of the time, I write computer software, something that I believe is an important aspect of what I do. I do not think that I am "called" to this - rather that I am "gifted" or "talented" in doing this, and I use my talents in this. I do believe that this is something given me by God, but also something I need to continually work at and improve.

"Ah well, that is you, but others do have a calling to the priesthood" you may say. Well one thing that I have got out of Andrew Brims latest book The Narky Nazarene is that this needs to be more clearly defined. If it is to teach people, then there are places to teach the Christian message. If it is to pastor people, then there are plenty of places to pastor people, to minister to them. If it is to lead people, then there are plenty of groups and people to lead and move on to the next place.

You could conclude that I don't have a lot of time for the priesthood, for clergy. You might be right, at least in that I do think the CofE dominant focus on priesthood is very dangerous and damaging. But I don't dismiss it completely - there is a place for people to be licensed for leadership positions. But, judging from what so many clergy seem to comment on, the skills and calling for this should be the ability to manage administration, and deal with stroppy and miserable people.

In the end, I think the core problems that I have with the sense of a "calling" to priesthood are twofold. Firstly, I think it is in danger of missing other perfectly valid "callings", not the usual sinecure of a calling to a secular job. We are missing callings that have nothing to do with the church, but are all spiritual callings to ministry. By focusing firstly on the church, and then on one particular role in the church, we miss the real meaning of calling, and the importance of spiritual calling and ministry in the wider world.

Calling - I think the question may not be what you are called to, but who you are called to. Calling is about people, because God is about people. That, at heart, is why I struggle with a "calling to priesthood".

Monday, 14 January 2013


An article in The Guardian caused a lot of online activity recently, mainly with misunderstanding of what was actually being said. However, I want to discuss something else first.

Just before Christmas, my twitter timeline was getting full of people reacting strongly to a show "15 Stone Babies" on  Channel 4. So when I saw it was repeated, I thought it might prove intriguing to watch.

Disturbing is more like it. It dealt with a few people who are "Adult Babies" - they are adults, but they enjoy being treated like babies - dressed up, wearing nappies, being changed, sleeping in a cot, playing baby games.I should point out that, despite the reference to the article above, these people are not pedophiles, they are not sexually attracted to children or babies, and, for many, there is nothing sexual in their behaviour. There is absolutely no suggestion that these people are doing anything illegal or morally wrong.

The problem is that, in the program, many of them did appear to be seeking to evade the adult world, at least temporarily.While I accept that these people do not feel like they have a problem, I think they could do with some emotional counselling, because they are, on appearance, emotionally misplaced. I don't have a problem with what they do, I just think that, on presentation, it appears to be something they might need to get help for.

The Guardian article was arguing - gently - for something that John Bell talked about at Greenbelt in 2011. It was arguing that pedophilia is a sexual orientation, and should be treated as such. This has a number of important implications.

Firstly, and most critically, if it is a sexual orientation, then it cannot be changed. No more than homosexuality can be changed, and there have been enough attempts to do this, none of which have been successful. A persons sexual orientation would appear to be something that they are stuck with for life, although this does not mean that people have to live their life in accordance with their orientation.

Secondly, accepting that pedophilia is a sexual orientation, not a perverse and sick intention on the part of the perpetrator, means that there is a possibility of accepting these feelings and admitting to them. The problem is that someone who has these feelings cannot at the moment get any help, and is liable to simply be rejected and spurned. Until they commit a crime there is no help available, and then the only treatment was jail. Surely it would be far better if people could admit to this and get some help. If people who felt these urges could get help, then maybe less children would be abused and damaged - and if this is not the aim, then what is?

Thirdly, if it is accepted as an orientation, and people could admit to it, then those about them who care for them could assist in helping them to avoid difficult situations - not unlike an alcoholic, who can be helped by their friends to avoid places where they are tempted to drink. The current demonisation of pedophiles means that they don't admit to their feelings, and so are not helped to avoid problematic situations.

Just to make this clear, if we accept pedophilia as a sexual orientation - more, if we accept pedophiles as people who have a sexual orientation that is difficult - then we can work with them to avoid putting them in charge of young people (how many of those working with young people are pedophiles who have never offended or been caught? We have no idea), and we can help them in situations that they find themselves. Treating them as human means that we respect then as people, and seek to help them develop and grow an humans.

I should clarify a couple of points here. I am NOT suggesting that accepting pedophilia is a sexual orientation means that we accept it as reasonable and normal. It is not, and sexual abuse of young children is not "acceptable" in any sense at all. That is part of the point - accepting it is about providing support, help and control. It is not about deeming it acceptable.

Secondly, I am not arguing for Pedophile Rights, for a slow progress towards permitting it, making it normal, looking at pedophile marriage. This is not the aim not the goal. The goal is that someone who has these sexual feelings for young children could admit it to someone in confidence, and could then get help and assistance in dealing with it. It is about treating pedophiles as human.

Because Jesus was all about taking the demonised, taking the outcasts, taking the rejected people and treating them as human beings. And by treating them as human beings, he changed them,and made them less of a threat. That is worth working towards.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Sara Ege

This story is disturbing, and shocking, of a mother who, it would appear, beat her own son to death for failing to learn his Koran reading properly. There are a number of disturbing aspects that should alert us all.

Firstly, if you believe that your scriptures are important, then it does make a lot of sense to learn them, and learn them by heart. In the church, I think it is fair to say that we tend to neglect this idea, because our Sunday schools are much less focused on rote learning. This story points to one of the reasons for this.

Secondly, it is very easy to assume that this is an issue purely for "religious people", but in truth, it isn't. The same concepts apply whatever your core belief texts are. Belief is not limited to religion, which is why there are lessons for people who would not claim a particular religious affiliation.

What really hit me is that this mother was so insistent on her son learning the Koran by heart, while - it would appear - not actually knowing the contents herself. Killing your own children is not in keeping with the teaching of the Koran. This is the core problem with this sort of learning, that it is easy to learn the words without learning the meaning. This is the reason that it is not so popular these days in teaching, because learning like this is not necessarily any use in applying the learning. If the "learning" is the core essence of what drives your life, it is critical to understand it and be able to apply it, not just know the words.

Of course, even without this rote learning, it is easy to know the tenets of your faith, without really having the understanding to apply it. That is a challenge to everyone - do you know your ideas, or do you know how to apply them? In fact, being able to recite your personal creed is less important than being able to discuss, explore, work it out in situations, understand what the implications of it are, and be prepared to have it challenged and then renewed. And yes, this is challenging and difficult.

The other real issue is that a mother would be driven to beat her own son to death, of course. This is particularly shocking because it was not neglect, not sexual, none of the normal indicators for abuse (although he was, apparently, often bruised and had clearly been beaten previously). It is also not an "accidental" over-reaction - a parent losing it and doing something they would instantly regret later whatever the results. This was a systematic beating, followed by burning of the body to hide the evidence of the abuse.

This mother is clearly in need of help. She failed in her core maternal role to protect her children. Her religion is unrelated to this, but it didn't stay her hand, it didn't change her to being a better person. In that, her religion failed. I don't mean Islam, I mean her interpretation of faith.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Austerity is a lie

The new year is here, and more above-inflation rail fare rises are here, along with more cuts to the benefits system. The cost of living in the UK for the poorest has increased significantly, although the cost for the wealthier has not so much.

The explanation from the government is, of course, that these are austerity measures, because of the global recession, meaning that there is less government money to fund the railways, the benefits system, and local facilities.

The problem is that this is a lie.

This is a lie, because the government could fill the budget gap is a range of other ways. One example here indicates the level of benefit fraud - something the government has emphasised as being a major problem - is not as high as has been suggested. In fact this link (and others are available with similar levels, even if different figures) suggests that fraud levels are around 2.2% of total benefits, some £3.4bn.

It also shows that the there may be some £16bn a year in unclaimed benefit, meaning that if the entire system was cleaned up, and everyone claimed no more or less than they should, the benefits bill would increase by over £10bn.

Of course the government is now starting to attack even legitimate benefit claimants. The most prominent are the increasing demands on the unemployed, as well as the recent suggestions to insist that the retired should contribute to society.

The problem is that most jobseekers are actually looking for work. Not all, I would accept, but most, and so if they do not take a job on offer, there is probably a good reason for it. Forcing them into accepting jobs that are unsuitable is liable to mean they will have to claim more benefits for childcare coverage, or that they will have to give up the job. It is wrong to assume that even unskilled jobs are suitable for just anyone - and it is dehumanising to assume that they are. People are not just units of production, and should not be treated as such, in any situation. Ignoring this is not only wrong morally, but it is liable to throw up more problems in time, not least medical ones, putting more pressure on the NHS.

Pensioners have already made significant contributions to society, and should be able to retire without any further requirements. In many cases, they will make contributions to society.

The other significant information on that link above is the other side of the equation - tax fraud and evasion. This would indicate that this costs over £100bn a year - something like 60% of the total benefit bill for a year (depending on which figures you take, it might be up to nearly 100% of the bill). What is more, this figure is 20 times the benefit fraud figures, so achieving even 10% success in addressing this would make more of a difference, and allow the benefits cuts to be stopped.

This, of course, shows up the real reasons for the "austerity" measures, because there have been plenty of well publicised examples of companies who are not paying their full tax responsibilities, so it is not a problem of finding the money. The real problem is that these companies are the financiers and supporters of the Tory party.

The real reason for most of the government policies - in particular, the financial ones, implemented under the guise of "austerity" - are just extreme versions of standard Tory politics, reducing the tax burden on the rich, and increasing it on the poorer. This is why the government will not raise revenue from the richer, the city and business, despite the fact that the banks are substantially responsible for the economic crisis.

Just for clarification, I don't doubt that some people on benefits are cheating, or that there are some savings to be made in the NHS. I don't deny that we are globally in an economic recession. I have no question whatsoever that we are in tough economic times. But the reason that I say that austerity is a lie is that this is not the reason for the economic changes. The real reason for these is that David Cameron wants to help his friends in this difficult time: the city, the business community (including the train companies) and the wealthy.
Personally, I would call it cronyism instead. "All in this together" it certainly isn't.

This is not a political rant from a lefty against the right wing. It is not about  political positions, as, in all honesty, I don't see any of the main political leaders as being any different in essence. The problem for me is that this is abuse, abuse of those who are not rich, abuse of those who are not influential. This is abuse by those in power of those without power. Forget austerity, this is power games instead.