Good news from young people

Last night I was part of the large audience of people who gathered at the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra Inside Out Concert held at Fortwilliam & Macrory Presbyterian Church. It genuinely was a privilege and I don’t use the word ‘privilege’ as a kind of punctuation but with real feeling. The concert is part of a fundraising drive for the pupils at the School of Music for the various events that they put on and their summer tour programme. It is the young people taking responsibility for themselves and for what they want out of life. It was am impressive performance of skill and craft and love of performance. This was not pulled out of the hat without hard work, dedication and planning. Yes – all of those words can be attached to young people in our society, in today’s Belfast: responsibility, planning, love, hard word, dedication, skill craft. In large groups, small quartets and trios, as individual performers, as stage managers and as the ‘awesome’ link man the young people of CBYO put the programme together, planned it together, asked for help where they needed it and got on with it where they could get on with it. And they practiced and practiced and practiced some more to reach a standard of performance that was worth far more than the sum we were invited to give for the privilege of being there. A far cry from the stories we hear about young people who menace their neighbours, waste their lives and live with very little sense of self esteem. So congratulations CBYO. You are a credit to yourselves and a credit to Belfast. You demonstrated what community is, what commitment is, what love of life is and what friendship and good humour can give to life. I say it again – congratulations! Your legacy is a real one.


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Unionism – still looking for direction?

So Tom Elliot isn’t going to stand again for election.

Elliott off – what next for the UUP?

A countryman at heart it seems the work and worry of the politics of reconstructing an effective Unionist Party wasn’t where he could move to happily. Who would argue that Unionism doesn’t need some reconstruction? But there may be those who would argue that it’s a waste of time. A waste of time, that is, for what used to be mainstream, middle of the road, decent Unionism has now become sidelined Unionism with too many gripes and not enough inspirational power or policy. The popular ground has been well populated by the DUP who have put themselves together as a working party with direction, political skill, character and ability.

So why do we need another Unionist Party? Or, for that matter, why do we need the SDLP as well as Sinn Fein? Why were we not warned that the middle ground would flip with the extremes to become an irrelevant kind of ‘slippage off stage’ while the extreme would flip into the centre where all the action, including the engagement, would take place.

I would argue that at this point in history we should not yet be ready to give up the ground to two large parties. I am not content that a growing strength in the Alliance Party is enough, together with other smaller parties. I am not quite ready to give up the other parties because I don’t believe we have managed to accept what it is to live with diversity in a way which respects difference and takes it seriously. Every now and again there slips out under the door of tight-lipped tolerance not only an inability to accept that there might be some validity in another view of the world but also an absolutism which refuses to even listen to that other view of the world.

Accepting that there are diverse views of the world and accepting that there can be room for listening without having to be converted to the opinion of the other is a place we need to reach if we are to move towards a future which is defined more by how society is reconciling than by how it is divided. We have to be able to listen to each other, maybe even to articulate the views of others as well, learning that seeing the world from another place isn’t all a bad thing. This should have no fear for anyone for what it enables each one to do is to see themselves better, to see how they are seen and how they are heard, increasing the effectiveness of what they present because they now know how they are seen and heard from the outside. It only makes sense. Diverity matters and the acceptance of the validity of diversity matters. But that is not the same thing as saying that difference doesn’t matter. Of course it matters and of course there are differences that will be intolerable and political views of the world that need to be challenged. But diversity does matter. If we can’t see diversity and listen to the differences then what hope is there on gender, race, disability or any other issues where there are vast and natural differences as well as those created by society.

All of this is to say that for the time being Unionism has something to offer within the package of diversity that we are still learning how to get our heads around in Northern Ireland. Mr Elliot’s stepping down provides the opportunity for the party to elect someone different, with different skills than the leaders of the past precisely because Unionism needs different skills at this point in its history. It can’t move entirely away from controversy because other parties will not accept all that Unionism claims. But it does need a big personality and certainly some big ideas. It also needs some big vision to pick itself up and out of the little ideas and into something worth proposing, worth risking, worth spreading and arguing for across society. I really hope that Unionism manages to pull it out of the hat. There are some big gaps in the market for creative and sensible thinking – Unionism gets it chance in just three weeks time!

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Technology’s seduction

I just can’t resist. I have to admit it. Hands up, truth be told, give it up, reveal reality – I just can’t resist! Apple do it so well. Somewhere else it is said that image is everything and with Apple image matters. The presentation matters. The sound, the vision, the slick movement from one aspect of the presentation to another, it all matters. Somehow it doesn’t feel contrived or inauthentic. The build up, the self-aggrandisement, the applause, the new information, the product. The iPad has arrived. It seems that’s what we’re calling it – the iPad. Not 3 or 2S, just simply the iPad. Therein lies another aspect of this seductive technology – simplicity.

There are things I know – I know that what technology I have will continue to work well and that it is still a product to boggle the mind; I know that it will take some saving to be able to afford this new product; I know that there are things more worthy of my savings than this; I know that in parts of the world there is no internet connection, no way to maintain technology of this sort; I know that sometimes there are suspect work & employment practices; and I know that I have been taken in by technology’s incredible, seductive power. Yet, and here’s another truth, there are very few things in life I give in to or am driven by quite so much as Apple’s latest devices.

So take a look and if you don’t get it, well…. what can I say? Clearly you don’t appreciate this wonderful world in which ordinary human beings have learned to exercise God-given gifts to extremes which ten years ago could not even have been imagined. Take a look…

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Neutrality, journalism and moral agency

I really appreciated the debate on Sunday Sequence this morning about the role of journalists. It was all the more interesting because there isn’t, in my view, enough debate about this in the public arena. There is very likely plenty of debate about it behind closed doors – every organisation and grouping has its own way of contemplating itself. But as far as I am concerned I haven’t heard enough of this.

Over these last years when so many institutions in society are being reformed it is also the case that there are some who, as yet, remain untouched. Thankfully there are those facing up to changes that have to made, grasping nettles that have to be grasped if the sectarianism, division and violence are not to form us in the future as they have in the past. But I have heard it said – what about the media? How do we engage them in debate about change and about how they can support a new world? Or how can we engage journalists in a conversation about how they continue to transmit the old world and encourage its surivival?

On the same programme In a debate about the shipyard Mike Nesbitt referred to living in ‘silos’. I am convinced that among the greatest changes that can be made so the future is not like the past is the change from silo thinking to connected thinking. Connected thinking, or joined up thinking, or networking, or however you want to dub it, resists any return to the things and ways of the past precisely because it breaks down the silos that allow parallel, separated communities to exist without reference to one another It permits a society built on a new kind of connectedness in which the thoughts and views of others are given careful consideration. So any organisation that continues to think about itself behind closed doors very much remains unreformed and connected to the past, maybe without even knowing about it. The world of journalism is one of those silo worlds. So for me this debate was refreshing and challenging, even exciting.

At one level there is no such thing as neutrality so a journalist is unable, try as they might, to report ‘the facts and only the facts.’ But as competent moral agents who are self-aware they can strive to counter their natural humanity by searching out the view that they don’t want to report, the opinions that don’t resonate with them. In so doing they make a conscientious decision to counter the silo in which they want to live and the human tendency they have to sympathise with one view of the world or another. It is actually an extension of moral agency. To have such moral agency hauled out of the shadows and examined together with the likelhood of neutrality ever being achieved helps me to find new faith in the media’s presentation of the world in which we live.

Don’t for one minute think I am highly critical of the media. I greatly admire the job that is done in providing a news service and in providing space for asking questions and making challenges that can’t be made easily in other places. So this is not all about criticism. But it is about the discovery of new integrity, honesty and connectedness with the world which places journalists into a conversation with the worlds it reports on rather than viewing journalists as neutral commentators on those worlds. In my opinion, for what it’s worth, this could make a world of difference. There are other institutions in society which still have reforming to do.

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It turned out for good

Today we are launching our newly refurbished premises. The premises sit straddling one of Belfast’s so-called peace lines and represent all that has been ‘caught in the middle’ during the conflict. They also represent all the bridges that people have courageously and often quietly built. Building bridges can be a thankless task, not least because of the serious commitment it takes and the drain on time and energy which can never be matched by the gratitude of those who, not so close up to things, wonder why it takes such a long time. So bridge-building can be a thankless task but it is also work that teaches us to see the small things as being of great significance. Those small things are built together, constructed into something new and sustainable precisely because each little bit is in its place.

In the early autumn of last year we had just kicked off our winter programme. A new full-time worker was on board and two new volunteers for the year were ready to get to work. It was a time of excitement and planning and hope and the programme for the winter was beginning to take shape when the premises were broken into. The thieves who wanted the copper piping didn’t take very much but they left the pipes running water all over the place so the floor that had been laid just a couple of months earlier after flooding from the cold snap at the beginning of the year was destroyed – and so much more. Looking back I thank God for it:

– For the new relationship with builders who have been helpful, accommodating and a pleasure to work with

– For the building of a strong team of leaders who pulled together to get things decided and done

For the workers on the ground who shared premises and groups with us and allowed us the privilege of developing stronger community relationships on both sides of the ‘divide’.

So today we have a far better building but more importantly we have far better good relationships. It may all have been intended for self-interested benefit but it has come out good in the end.

The dreams we have are for so much more. At present there are two doors into the building – one part of the community gets to access through the front door and the other section of the community gets to access through the back door. Hardly ideal for a partnership approach, for shared space and for developing reconciling relationships at the very edge of divided community. There has to be serious thought given to a shared entrance and financing it or we are not matching the integrity we claim locally and theologically. So there remains a vision, a dream, a hope. Truthfully at this point in time we have reached a good place and we are grateful for it but the other truth is that there will be a double reaction to the way ahead. Some will say – what more do you want and there isn’t the money anyway. Others will want to push on and make the bigger dream a reality. If North Belfast is to be transformed then lots of individuals and groups are going to need to keep on pushing forward, building stronger cross-community relationships and building up a store of social capital that so connects us with our former enemies that there is no danger of taking up arms against one another ever again. For the churches the question remains – do you want to makers and builders of peace or not? God in Christ gave us the ministry of reconciliation and Jesus himself said ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’. If the churches aren’t interested in the blessing of peacemaking then I am sure God will find others who are.

There are tough choices ahead. We haven’t got much in the way of resources but we will have to consider risking what we do have to and for this work believing that the blessing is a matter for God. Or we can go to the funders and maybe they will help us but on the other hand if we aren’t prepared to risk why should they be prepared to? Accountants tell us one things. The economy of the gospel tells us another. So there are tough choices ahead but hopefully it will all turn out for good.

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Women’s World Day of Prayer

In church life there are always things that we boldly wonder about bringing to a good end, letting go. But it’s hard and not least because sometimes what one set of people are thinking about letting go of another set of people are just getting the hang of. Ecumenical things regularly fall into that category. In some parts of Northern Ireland the old-style ecumenical activities, the staples as it were, are experiencing falling numbers and becoming a burden to organise. The burden doesn’t always have to do with them being ecumenical though but with the fact that the people organising the event have been organising it for years and there is no one new coming forward to take it on. No one new understands the purpose or importance of the activity so we extrapolate from that and become convinced that the activity is no longer relevant to people’s lives. Attempts at resuscitation seem futile. I have heard enough commentary about the Women’s World Day of Prayer to know that some people feel it is time to let it go. Some feel they are weary of organising it and they have no idea how to reinvigorate it but it is never going to be taken up by a new generation in the same style that it was in the past. At the same time as some struggle others are discovering the wonderful experience that this day brings to women across the world and they are finding new privileges of encounter with their neighbours, with Christians from other denominations and after years of meeting, in some place, just among the Protestant denominations there are women now meeting with their Catholic sisters in the Lord and finding themselves deeply moved by the opportunity to share faith across those old, painful and troublesome divides. So laying to rest is not so easy after all and bold statements about bringing to a good end can boldly swipe away the moment of privilege for someone else.

As the sun sets in some other sky women who have prayed together are at home turning out the light for the night. For me it’s nearly time to go and share in the worship prepared by the women of Malaysia.

WOMEN’S WORLD DAY OF PRAYER: PRESS RELEASE

‘LET JUSTICE PREVAIL’

On Friday 2nd March over 3 million people world wide will be praying and worshipping
together during an annual day of prayer, using a form of service prepared by Christian
women in Malaysia.

Jean Hackett, president of the National Committee of the Women’s World Day of Prayer
movement in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, said:
‘This is always an exciting day as a great wave of prayer sweeps the world, beginning
when the first service is held in the Queen Salote Girls School in Tonga and continuing
around the world until the final service takes place, some 35 hours later, in neighbouring
Western Samoa. By then the day will have been celebrated in over 170 countries and more
than 6,000 services will have been held in the British Isles alone.’

Malaysia is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Throughout its history it has attracted
migrants from other parts of Asia and beyond and it is one of the wealthiest and most
developed countries in South East Asia. Women have made important contributions to its
social and economic development but, nevertheless, they still face discrimination and
violence at all levels of society. Even today a girl child is seen as less valuable than a boy.
Malaysia is now the most popular destination country in Asia for migrant workers and
human trafficking has become a sophisticated and organised operation.

Although Malaysia’s multi-ethnicity has added to the rich heritage of its land and people, it
has also given rise to many problems. In the service those issues of concern are named
and the women voice their hope for the future. Justice for all is their hope, and their prayer
is “Let Justice Prevail”.

Although organised and led by women, this is essentially a day of prayer for everybody,
demonstrating our solidarity with our sisters and brothers in other countries and all are
welcome to attend. Further information and resources, together with details of services in
your area, can be found on the WWDP website at http://www.wwdp-natcomm.org.

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Welfare Reform

Last night I went to the Assembly Buildings, what we used to call Church House, to listen to what seemed like many speeches about Welfare Reform. Some prefer to say ‘welfare cuts’, which they are. I don’t think anyone denied that. It was momentous because Cardinal Sean Brady followed the Moderator to the podium and there he delivered a strong, hard-hitting, deeply theological speech reflecting on the Christian calling to protect the weak, to care for widows and orphans and strangers and foreigners. He spoke with authority drawing heavily on the text of Scripture and pointing us back to our roots in the Mosaic Law. His challenge was clear and reminded me of all those times in history when the church was faithful and energetic and radical. So in history Christian people challenged slavery, brought the need for education to light and began that provision and in many others ways today responds to the social needs around us – addiction, homelessness and the like. Of course we have to admit that Christians haven’t always got it right. I’m not wanting to deny that but rather to point to the times when somehow the Church was so in step with the wind of the Spirit that change happened. So thanks to Cardinal Brady for the inspiration.

Welfare Reform – Christians thinking it through

It is not so easy to maintain enthusiasm when it comes to the rest of the evening. The Secretary of State began by reminding us that the Conservative Government is not responsible for the mess we are in – an argument that begins to run thin and suggests that here we have a coalition which is unwilling to shoulder responsibility and when it can will shunt that off somewhere else. When asked for figures he had to be pushed because, as he point out, that wasn’t his job but the task of Stormont. That is true but the framework of commentary from some either ivory tower or place of purity which points to the responsibilities that others have is one that can only weaken an argument or in this case a proposition that what is intended by the reform is the development of a culture of work. And who would want to argue with that? But still it didn’t feel right and it didn’t sound right and the majority of the audience seemed unsettled.

Thanks to the panel from Salvation Army, Citizen’s Advice, Board of Social Witness, St Vincent de Paul and Skainos who brought real lives and real stories into the picture. Thanks especially to Glenn Jordan for doing the joined up thinking and reminding us that yes there is a welfare budget but it isn’t decided in a vacuum. It  is decided among the other choices that governments make including choices for submarines to carry nuclear weapons at a cost of… several years of welfare. So the choices are there and they are to be examined if we are to make any headway. Jobs will have to be created if we are going to grow a society of people that want to work. This is not simple territory and if everyone is to discover their potential and live that potential then more radical root and branch change is going to be needed.

A panel from the real world
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