"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happy Birthday John Delaney

Regular readers will know that my good friend (of nearly thirty years standing) the mad physicist and I have a regular Bromance type date every school holiday. He is 56 today. He says 52. Come on folks, who do you really believe? We are the definitive "attraction of opposites": I am witty, charming, urbane, articulate, intelligent, socially skilled, good looking and, most significantly, self-effacing. John is none of these.

Following a lengthy lunch we found ourselves, possibly the worse for alcohol, doing some last minute shopping. This found us in Marks and Spencer's Leeds and, in some strange stroke of fate for two guys who never meet a pupil in town, behind - no, really, you'll laugh - our beloved Boss from the knowledge college.

"Look who it is, look who it is." one of us called John said (perhaps a tad too loudly.)

The Boss and his wife turned to us looking, one has to say, a little like rabbits caught in the headlights.

It's his Birthday. I managed, weakly, (wishing I were somewhere else) as if that somehow explained all.

The Birthday boy, however, came up with "Hehehehehe ..... back passage."

I'm not sure what the Boss said in repost as I was dying a lonely death of humiliation in a corner of menswear.

"Back passage? BACK PASSAGE?" I say to John over (another) restorative beer.

He grins sheepishly. "I have no idea."

What are the chances either of has a job after Christmas?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sunday Sermon. The Angel Gabriel and Mary: Luke 1.26-38

I hate this time of year: Christmas music in the shops for weeks, the city festive lights on for so long that the novelty has worn off, bookings for Christmas meals flagged up in restaurants since July. What ever happened to Advent? At our Christmas do at school on Friday I got a special mention in the "Twelve Days of Christmas" spoof rewrite. "On the twelfth day of Christmas Sir said to me "It's still only Advent." There was much hilarity and on reflection I may have gone on about it a bit with my one man campaign to reclaim Advent. Have you noticed that Adent has been contaminated by Christmas creep?

Take a typical conversation in the classroom last week:

“No, go on Sir show us a film. It’s Christmas and its our last lesson.”

No, actually it’s Advent.

“No Sir, seriously, it’s Christmas.”

No. It’s Advent.

“What’s that then?”

It’s the period of preparation leading up to Christmas.

“No, it’s Christmas now. We’ve had cards; my mum’s been buying mince pies for weeks; she’s bought sprouts too; there’s Christmas music all over the place; I’ve bought my younger brother a computer game and everyone’s arguing. Of course it’s Christmas.”

Trust me. It’s Advent.

On today's Sunday Programme on Radio 4 there was a discussion about how the supernatural in the Bible stories is a direct cause of a decline in faith. Young people particularly have no truck with it. What would the average class of 16 yr olds make of today’s Gospel extract? Or, perhaps, more to the point what does the average adult in this country make of it? There are many adults who struggle with today’s story. What do you make of it?

Most people understand ideas like symbolism, analogy and myth as proper genres of Biblical expression. Most people know that – America apart, obviously – very few people understand the Bible as 100% literally true; they know that such literal interpretations are a fairly recent phenomenon and yet presented with this story, as one of my classes were as part of my preparation for this morning, they immediately went for the superficial understanding of the story - and dismissed the story as a consequence.

They couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Or perhaps, more to the point, they couldn’t see the annunciation for the angel. Is this a story about an angel giving amazing news to Mary? Or, is it a story about an angel giving amazing news to Mary? Rather than seeing a story of wonder as shown in a theologically unique idea that God would choose to become man, what I got was: “Angel? Oh come on Sir. As if!” Does that secretly represent you’re misgivings?

What does the word “Angel” actually mean? I ask them. Silence. Do you know what the word “Angel” actually means? It simply means “messenger” as in “God's messenger.” Medieval artists have a lot to answer for. Imagine for a moment that a Medieval Pope has had a new cathedral built and that he commissions an up-and-coming artist to paint its ceiling with the annunciation. The artist goes away and looks up the story.

“Mary. Check.”
“Nazareth and environs. I’ve never been but I can paint a rural hamlet I suppose.”
“An angel …….. Ooo-er! An angel? Not sure about that at all.”

The first stumbling block in today’s gospel for many people comes in the very first line. In the sixth month the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee. Could you describe an angel? Of course you could. You might have more of a problem rationalising that description. Has it occurred to you that our standard image of an angel comes direct to us down the ages from the imaginations of our Medieval artist and his colleagues? People read “Angel” and mainly think M. & S. nightie, pigeon’s wings, tinsel halo and harp – or possibly trumpet. In trying to represent the indescribable our artist has garnered such clues as he could find from scripture – very often from the apocryphal writings - and invented a strange creature which has cursed our understanding of the stories and caused many to dismiss them.

The next problem comes in the second verse. That angel came to …. a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph. My pupils roll their eyes. “A virgin? Oh please.” Does that also secretly reflect your discomfort in the story?

You could spend hours on the INTERNET looking at the theological debates and discussions about the virginity of Mary. Here’s one example: The word rendered from Hebrew in Isaiah’s prophecy into English via Greek was “almah”. The nearest English word is “maiden”, as in young unmarried woman. While this may imply virginity it is not a required part of the definition.

“Sir, you’re shattering my illusions.”

I’m sorry?

“This business about angels and the virgin Mary. It’s not what we were taught.”

But you don’t believe it anyway.

“That’s not the point.”

So I ask them: What are the story of the annunciation and the nativity story all about?

“What do you mean?”

What is the point of these stories? Reduce them to their bare minimum. What’s the central element of the stories?

“The birth of Jesus.”

Is that it?

“Well, Christians believe he was the son of God.”

So it’s a pretty dramatic point?

“Yeah, maybe.”

Maybe? God sending his son into the world. It’s about as dramatic as it gets, surely?

“I suppose.”

Are the bits about the angel and virginity – and for that matter the star, wise men and so on – central to these stories?

“Probably not.”

Then why are they there?

There is silence while they digest this.

They are signposts to the significance of the story. This is the most dramatic event in human history. It needs some gravitas. How about this then: if God exists and is all the things that religious people say he Is – and then some – then like the angel says in the story, anything is possible right?

“Yes.” (Cautiously.)

Then the story could be true in all its detail, yes?

“Yes.” (Very cautiously.) “But Sir, you said it was a mistranslation.”

No. I said some people argue that it is. To me it doesn’t matter either way because the key part of the story is that God becomes human in Jesus and today’s part of the story is setting that up.

How many Nativity plays have we been to? How many Advent and Christmas Carols have we sung? How many times have we heard this annunciation story and the nativity stories? I have a theory that there is such a thing as “The Tinsel Factor” and at this time of year our understanding of our key gospel stories is subverted by it: over familiarity with the stories – including this one - and a life time of watching primary school kids in tea-towels and tinsel can actually inoculate us from what the story is teaching us and it becomes about the event rather than the message. Unless we are on the ball, the story trumps its teaching.

How many people, I wonder, have got hung up on the details of the story and because they can’t accept them as literally true, they can’t accept the key element of the story and so dismiss it in the same way? It’s not about angels or a virgin - or a star or wise men for that matter: it’s about God intruding into human history in the form of Jesus with an agenda of salvation.

To illustrate the idea and to make that point I tell people this little story. We’re only a week away so I hope you’ll forgive me that it’s a Christmas story rather than an Advent story. Are you sitting comfortably?

Marlene's Nativity

“Now, take my friend Marlene: she's a very artistic type. You probably know the sort - dangly Trade Craft earrings, pencils and paint brushes pushed into her hair geisha - style: half-moon glasses precariously perched an the end of her nose and a pair of Doc Martens - one red and one green. ('I've another pair like this you know.')

She's a leading light in regional amateur dramatics with a name for her radical re-workings. Her trans-gender 'Phantom of the Opera' is still talked about in hushed tones …… in Bramley. Marlene is also a bit of a committee junkie, an inveterate organiser and with a reputation for not tolerating fools: (i.e. most other people she knows). So I wasn't particularly surprised when she agreed to the Church Councils' request to stage last year's Nativity.

The committee gathered in her large kitchen, all shaker style furniture and IKEA fittings - very Headingley. Oh, and she had an agenda. “To bring this story alive it has to be brought into the present. We must make it relevant!” And so she set about her task with relish - carrying the rest of us, I have to say, rather in the slipstream of her enthusiasm.

Marlene used her contacts at the University to cast the Wise Men who turned out to be Justin, Trevor ... and Brenda … and you probably remember that Marlene and Brenda have not been on civil terms since the unfortunate incident at the Turkish bath.

Well it won't matter' said Marlene, all hurt pride and a large gin. “No one will notice the difference: all they'll see is three moustaches – and that’s before the costumes are on.

Her neighbour's daughter, Sigourney, was cast as Mary, notwithstanding the fact that at 14, she was pushing the boundaries of virginity somewhat.

“But she's ethnic. Don't you see she's perfect for the part: so 21st century marginalized.” and that was that. Marlene brooked no contradiction.

“Anyway,” she said, gesturing to an open copy of a book by Walter Bruggerman on the vicar’s desk, “If you knew your Hebrew you’d know that it doesn’t actually say Virgin.”

“Oh she thinks she’s a theologian now does she?” muttered Brenda to Justin.

“Look, we’re demythologising here so don’t expect a star anytime soon either.” Marlene retorted. “Difficult to believe Herod didn’t see it. He must’ve kept his windows shut that week, eh?”

The rest of the casting fell into place: the local Imam graciously declined the role of the Angel Gabriel. "Well you can take multiculturalism to the point of political correctness and then where would we all be? Answer me that?" observed Brenda. Terry, the local postman took his place in a stunning piece of symbolism that no one got, even when Marlene, to considerable consternation insisted that he performed in his uniform.

“Philistines.” she said, as she explained with elaborate patience for the third time the symbolism of postman as messenger of God.

“Actually, Marlene, point of order. The Philistines were a very cultured people”

“Actually, Trevor, any more points of order and you’ll be the back end of the donkey."

Sigourney's boyfriend Cameron was drafted in as the innkeeper. A night-club doorman by trade he had little difficulty with the lines - “You can't come in here, we're full' although he did tend to keep fooling around at rehearsals and ad-libbing: 'You can't come in mate, but you can, love, we're letting in girls for half price tonight”.

Joseph was to be played by Len, the church caretaker.

"But he's about 1000 years old Marlene."

"Joseph was older than Mary you know. Anyway, it says a lot about the exploitation of women in a patriarchal society."

Rehearsals came and went.

"Marlene, I'm sorry to interrupt but I'm having trouble with my character in this scene. What's my motivation here?"

"Go away Trevor. You’re a palm tree. Any more of that luvvy-talk and you’ll be the back end of the donkey.

"Len, please! How often have I told you? Don't smoke during the birth scene - the baby Jesus is inflammable."

"Marlene, if I hear another religious person say: 'and Wise Men seek him still . . . .' I may run screaming from the building"

"Brenda, they're not religious, they're Church of England."

"Sigourney, Darling, no more piercings please - at least not before Christmas.

“Point of order, Marlene, technically, its not Christmas, its Advent, which means….”

“Someone bring me the donkey suit!

“That would be a problem Marlene. None of the Gospel stories mention a donkey at all.”

“Are you trying to trample on people’s long held beliefs Trevor” Brenda flounced. “I really don’t think this is the time or place for Atheism do you?”

“Terry. Drop the line about 'Special Delivery' Darling, it's not working-"

And so the evening arrived --- and Marlene was proved right. It was a triumph - dramatic, moving and powerful: very incarnational. The stable became an old garage, back-lit in moody tones, the manger: the boot of a jacked-up wreck. Drug paraphernalia littered the floor. Three local characters shared a bottle around a brazier and stray dogs sniffed around the set. Everyone delivered their lines perfectly, and on cue it snowed.

It's hard to believe that it was nearly a year ago now, and here we are again getting ready for this year. It's going to be different this year though. After Marlene's triumph the church council members met in emergency session. Words like uncomfortable, inappropriate, trendy and travesty were bandied about.

So we're back to the traditional again - shepherds in tea towels carrying cuddly sheep and angels with tinsel halos. The incarnational, the relevant and the up-to date, it seems, have no place in the Christmas story.”

My personal challenge over the next week or so it to try to avoid “the Tinsel Factor” and to grapple with the meaning of the stories. I invite you to share that challenge.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Advent stuff

At the knowledge college staff have been buying into the idea of not sending each other Christmas cards, but contributing towards charity instead. That's a great idea. What's not so great was the flurry of internal e-mails that came round explaining that, and wishing everyone a merry Christmas. On December 8th.

REPLY ALL. What's with all the Christmas stuff? It's Advent. Stop it at once.

"What are you on about?"


"When are you preaching next?"

Next week as it happens.

"Good, I've got my new hearing-aids.

Great. Were they expensive?



We arrived home, my beloved and I, from our usual Saturday chores/date. She has been a bit fractious recently as she's been stalking something on the INTERNET and it's not worked out.

"Now I know what Advent is really all about. Waiting and being disappointed."

The postman's been. Nothing for us.

"But we must be the most important - if not the mpost popular - family in the street."


For those following with bated breath the story of my form's party, I am now £30 down on the cost of crisps, pop and chocolate mini-rolls.

"I don't see why I should contribute. I don't want to come anyway."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bah Humbug!

I am not in a particularly good mood.

This has been a long term and I don't seem to have recovered from the clocks changing even though I gained an hour. I can't be doing with the early start in the cold and dark and the nightmare of winter motorway driving. I could particularly have done without the appearance of this morning's heavy gusting sleet the moment I hit the motorway. There is no joy to be had when you can only see hundreds of pairs of break lights suddenly light up as all the vehicles in front decide as one organic body to slow to a crawl from a very fast speed at the same time.

The school website carries a slightly sinister picture of the school with what appear to be seasonally clad single celled organisms wishing us a merry Christmas. I take my one-man "let's all celebrate Advent" campaign to the technician responsible via e-mail. I have had no reply. ("Oh God, it's him again on his soapbox. Ignore him and with luck he'll go away.")

So far there has been no evidence amongst the kids of any particular Christmas spirit. I've not yet had the "Advent conversation" with any chancers hoping for a DVD instead of a lesson. ("But Sir, it's Christmas.")

However my cup will soon runneth over.

I am a stand in Form Tutor. Mrs. Rashid is on maternity leave and I've copped for her lot. They are a perfectly reasonable crowd: mainly nice with a couple of irritants, one out and out nutter and a couple of dodgey characters. Par for the course, I'd say. At the pastoral meeting this week talk turned to the Christmas party. (But it's only Advent. "Shut up, no one cares.") By which I really mean Christmas parties, as in parties by form. I have to provide an event for my lot (Sorry, Mrs. Rashid's lot) for an hour before their final assembly.

You are joking? I'd rather lick my own a**e!

My beloved, as ever, is very upbeat about all this. (Perhaps she'd like to come in and host it.) We discuss what the kids might like to do.

They're fifteen. I say. They don't want to do anything.

"Shall I do a pass the parcel?"

At registration this morning I mention the party, herein to be referred to as "an hour of my life I'll never get back". As usual they choose not to respond and carry on with their own coversations, hitting each other, stabbing each other with pencils, hiding each other's bags and the rest of the usual stuff.

Eventually I get through to them. This would be best achieved by multiple texting but (in theory) they may not have their mobile phones on in school.

How about mince pies? as I get out my pen.

"Eeuuwww! Gross!"

I take it that's a no then?

"No sandwhiches either. They only get thrown away."

I've never done this before (much to the amazement of many of my colleagues) and so it's all a bit of a mystery to me. We end up with the following menu:

Crisps ("Only Pringles, Sir.")
Chocolate mini-rolls.

"So no alcohol then?"

Dream on.

Oh, and I forgot to mention - my form room is a science lab with fixed tables.

Just to add to my joy, one of the Christmas assembly activities is some community singing. Last year every form was given a verse from "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to sing. I say sing. What I mean is SCREAM because the powers that be decided to make it an inter-form competition. This year the premise is the same but each form has a line from Slade's "So here we are, Merry Christmas", a piece already characterised by it's over-the-topness.

I am expected to "rehearse" them.

I'm sorry, but you may be confusing me with someone who gives a sh*t.

I can hardly wait. Bring it on!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A church within a church.

I have concluded that I belong to a church within a church and it makes me feel quite proud. I like the image above because the juxtaposition of the two churches in their different states of repair sums up my sense of where it's all at.

A week or so back, accompanied by my beloved's vicar, I went to a meeting of Changing Attitude, an Anglican based organisation which exists to challenge the received wisdom and orthodoxy of the "traitional Christian" view on human sexuality. It was quite well attended by a mixture of the lay and the ordained, straight and gay and was chaired by our patron the Rt. Revd. John Packer, Bishop of the Diocese of Ripon and Leeds.

We did not plan the overthrow of the church, (although we did talk about organising a joint social with the group from a neighbouring diocese). Our discussions were not behind closed doors with secret knocks and people leaving at different times to avoid being followed with the consequent risk of the door being broken down at 3.00am. The following day no one was arrested, no one was threatened with the loss of a job or college place or was harassed in the street with attendant threats to family members, or beaten. No one experienced "corrective" rape.

I mentioned my having been to this meeting to one of my colleagues the next day and, as ever, there was a combination of a lack of interest and a general sense of perplexity about what all the fuss was about. In this country at least, as far as the unchurched go, homosexuality is pretty much a non issue outside the orbit of the usual right-wing hate suspects. Even within the church my observation is that many members of many congregations are off message in relation to their Conservative Evangelical leaderships' stance and I know of a couple of clergy who, free from their Conservative Evangelical former placements, are reevaluating the whole issue. Outside Conservative Evangelicalism I sense even less interest in issues of human sexuality within the church but I do sense a fear of the reaction of other churches abroad. One small denomination in Britain - I won't say British denomination, was all set to be very proactive and forward looking over the gay issue but quietly let it drop for fear of alienating and losing its African and Asian congregations which seemed to me to be an acknowledgement that the tail does, indeed, wag the dog.

It isn't as if the theology on human sexuality was questionable. It isn't - even though some who should know better still argue that it is and lead those who do not know better astray, but the long standing scholarly disciplines of Biblical Criticism and its understanding of the subtleties of the ancient writings of the Bible and their cultural and political influences and compromises can be sacrificed on the altar of .. well I'm struggling for the phrase here. Any suggestions?

I was pondering this afresh when I read in this week's Guardain the inspiring story of Cameroon gay rights lawyer Alice Nkom, who is leading the fight to overturn anti-gay laws in the 80 or so nations which still have them, 42 of which are member states of the British Commonwealth. I was equally surprised (and gratified) to discover that criminalising homosexuality is illegal under international law, according to Jonathan Cooper, a human rights barrister who is the chief executive of The Human Dignity Trust. Among the legal authorities establishing that precedent is a 1994 ruling by the UN's human rights committee based on a case in Australia.

H.D.T's first legal challenge is against section 53 of Belize's criminal code, which states that: "Every person who has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person or animal shall be liable to imprisonment for 10 years." What has so upset and shocked me is the discovery that Belize's evangelical, Anglican and Catholic churches have united to oppose the challenge. They are expected to set out their objections in a pre-hearing review on Friday and seek to introduce evidence that homosexuality can be "cured".

Really? That old argument is still doing the rounds? Dear God!

In a joint statement earlier this summer, the churches in Belize declared: "In every country that has granted a new 'right' to homosexual behaviour, activists have promoted and steadily expanded this 'right' to trump universally recognised rights to religious freedom and expression. The people of Belize will not surrender our constitution, our moral foundations, and our way of life to predatory foreign interests." No scaremongering there then. These leaders have very un-Latin American names. They are: Catholic bishop Dorick Wright, the Anglican bishop Philip Wright and the evangelical Rev Eugene Crawford. Would I be cynical in suspecting the hand of American or Australian GAFCON types at play here?

And yet I am in the same church and it depresses and upsets me that this is so. Can I repent on behalf of others? I think not but I want to. I belong to a church within a church I have concluded: a minority who seek to put into practice the teachings of its founder in terms of inclusivity and care of the marginalised rather than the tendentious teachings of the Old Testament. I have long had a term for such Old Testament Christians - LEVITICITES. Their teaching seems to me to be as far from the essence of the the teaching of the carpenter from Nazareth as it is possible to be.

I sat in church this morning and listened to the Gospel:

Matthew 25:31-46

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Could it be much clearer? Well, seemingly so. It doesn't mention homosexuals, you see, so clearly an application to them within the spirit of this teaching is clearly a non-starter.

"There are none so blind as them who will not see."

Read Alice's story here

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Lauren, the immovable force.

I've had that lot again this week.

I groan inwardly as I read my timetable.

They pour in like an overflowing drain, their hormones and mouths on overdrive.

When I teach Science and Religion I am used to individuals expressing doubt or cynicism about the traditional Genesis account. This lot, counterculturally, have a problem with the science. No matter how many times I say The Big Bang Theory is currently the most widely held explanation for the creation of the universe and if you don't accept it, it is up to you to convince the examiner that you have a credible alternative. Good luck with that they still argue.

"But the scientists could of (sic) made it up."

Why. WHY?

"For the money." (They know the price of everything but the value of nothing.)

Are you serious?

They are.

You must be careful when you answer the questions that are evaluative.

"What does that mean?"

The ones that ask for your opinion.


Because you can be marked down for going off on a rant and spouting rubbish.

"But if it's our opinion...."

No. It doesn't work like that. Your opinion has to a common-sense opinion and based on factual accuracy. You can't ague black's white and expect the examiner to throw marks at you at GCSE because it won't happen. You could end up with no marks for that section.

"But its our opinion."

And you still won't get any marks.

"But if it's my opinion it can't be wrong."

Yes it can.

"But it's my opinion."

I think we've established that and if it's not based on common-sense or factual accuracy its a wrong opinion.

"But it's my opinion. I don't believe in either of them."

I know I'm going to regret this but, somehow I can't let the moment pass.

What do you think caused the start of the universe then?

"Why should I know? I'm 14. I wasn't there."

I see my life begin to pass before my eyes. Is talking to Lauren a bit like drowning? You know, you are submerged by a more powerful, uncompromising force.

"The exam's rubbish then."

I decide to move on.

"Can I ask you a question? Sir, can I ask you a question? Why can't I ask you a question? I only want to ask a question. Sir, I want to ask a question? Can I ask a question? I only want to ask a question. Why can't I ask a question?"

Not just now Lauren.

"But you aren't doing anything just now. Can't I ask a question? I only want to ask a question. Why can't I ask a question?"

I'm waiting for quiet.

"That's what I mean. You aren't doing anything right now. I only want to ask a question. Why can't I ask a question? I only want to ask a question. Can I ask a question sir? ...

I'm waiting for you to be quiet.

"But I only want to ask a question. Why can't I ask a question? Can I ask a question? ............."


"I don't think I'm being taught to my potential when I can't even ask a question. Why can't I ask a question? I only want to ask you a question. Can I ask a question? I never get to share my opinion."

Lauren. That's all you ever do.

Later that day I have a Year 11 class I inherited from a much loved colleague who retired recently. How she kept her hands off them I'll never know.

At the recent parents' Evening a number of parents complained that the behaviour of a significant number of the boys in this group is stopping others from learning. It's a view I agree with.

"Well that's not very mature!"

What isn't Brad? The bad behaviour or the parents' complaints?

"The parents complaining."

Are you winding me up?

"No. They should mind their own business. What's it got to do with them?"

Did I die without noticing and go to Hell?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Socialising Teenagers: Is It Worth The Effort?

Ah, Friday of week 2: four periods out of five to teach - three year 9 lessons in a row on science and religion and a year 11 class on religion and prejudice.

My first observation is how different the three Yr 9 classes are. One is very focussed and hard working and, I must admit, a tad dull. The second has three key kids missing including the boy who is incredibly enthusistic and well read in scientific terms and also incredibly untidy (a boffin?) and the third has a group of formidable girls. Asma is possibly bonkers and the polar opposite of the general stereotype of an Asian girl. She is loud, earthy and all the boys are frightened of her. Lauren is like Lauren off the Telly. She doesn't know when to shut up, she's argumentative and has yet to learn that putting your hand up doesn't of itself entitle you to launch straight in to your pet conspiracy theory about aliens and God.

"No but, Sir ..."

No Lauren it's someone else's turn to talk now. (Possibly even mine, who knows?)

"No, but I've not finished talking."

But I have finished listening. It's someone else's turn now.

"No, but right Sir, If God came from another galaxy, right......"

Lalalalalalalala I can't hear you.

And then there's Deanna. Deanna's life is full of dramatic gestures and big sighs. She is a misunderstood child. She's also not used to hearing the word "no". I doubt she's ever been denied anything in her life. Everything Deanna does is a three act drama. Today she decided that her desk was wobbly. She turned folding a piece of paper to poke under the table leg into an art form which transfixed us all with her gymnastic dexterity. She is also prone to giggling.

I could slap her.



We talk of Fr. George Lemaitre, the Belgian Priest who formulated the Big Bang theory. We have previously looked at half a dozen key scientists starting with Copernicus and ending with Bell-Burnell who were Christians and I am (foolishly) at the point of congratulating myself on having conveyed the message that religion and science are not mutually exclusive.

"But that's wrong Sir. You can't be religious and believe in science."

Yes you can.

"No. Science has disproved religion."

No it hasn't.

"But lots of Christians don't believe in gravity."


"I saw this T-shirt with a woman on it arguing about gorillas and God.

I think you might mean evolution.

"No it was definately gravity. You know, Doreen."

Do you mean Darwin?

"Yeah, that's the one."

Interesting take on evolution but anyway, that's America. It doesn't count.


Look. When you hear "American" and "Christian" in the same sentence you should also hear warning bells.

"That's racist."

No. It's an observation. Trust me, its another world.

During my free period Mrs. Singh pops in from next door. She teaches Sociology and kindly agreed to teach some R.S. She rues the day. She has been bending my ear about this class all term. I've transferred one kid into my group and had another who she sent out sat at the back yesterday.

We are seven minutes into the lesson.

"These boys were late to the lesson and don't have an excuse." She gestures to a boy outside the room who shambles in. He is followed by another. And another. And another. In all there are six of them. She departs to teach her class.

Why were you late? I ask the first.

"I thought it was Maths so I went there."

Oh, an easy mistake. After all, its not as if you always have R.S. week two, Friday period three. Oh! Yes it is. I work through the group. We have one lost wallet and a friend helping him find it. Why does it take two of you?

"Well, he knew where it was."

So why didn't he pick it up and bring it to you?

At this point the boy in my own class is trying to hide behind the others. This doesn't work what with him being six inches taller.

"I needed to go to the toilet."

That's what break's for. In your own time, not Mrs. Singh's

They return to Mrs. Singh. I have no confidence that they are sufficiently chastened. I return to the office and had no sooner plugged in the kettle than Mrs. Singh is back with another boy.

"He tore up a book ..."

".... didn't"

"Then he denied it ...."

" ... didn't."

"Then he swore ......."

"I only said "fuck this". It wasn't at her."

He stays in my room for the rest of the lesson.

I return to the office and ring the pensions people.

When exactly can I retire?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Giles Fraser: Prophet of our time and for our time.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey - now Lord Carey, retired some years ago. As a general principle I tend to think people who retire from very high profile jobs should keep a very low profile so as not to undermine their successors or their old organisation. Lord Carey has not always always managed to do this and there have been a number of occasions when I have suggested that he get an allotment to keep him occupied in his retirement.

His most recent comments, on the other hand, could not have been more welcome. On Friday he criticized the cathedral's handling of the protest, saying the situation had become a "debacle" that could hurt Christianity's image.

"The inevitable resignation of the Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, Giles Fraser ..... is a sad day for one of our great national churches. But the departure of this able man, and now the planned reopening of the cathedral, should at least bring to an end the hand-wringing and posturing of the past two weeks. My paramount concern throughout has been that the reputation of Christianity is being damaged by the episode, and, more widely, that the possibility of fruitful and peaceful protest has been brought into disrepute," Lord Carey wrote in the Daily Telegraph newspaper. He went on to say, "For countless others, though, not least in the churches, this was a hopeful sign that peaceful protests could indeed take place at a time when so many civil liberties have been eroded. Furthermore, it demonstrated that the Church is willing to play a sympathetic role in the lives of young people who are drawn to a movement calling for economic justice.

Like many others in the Church, I have a great deal of sympathy for the raw idealism of the protesters. Their contention that the banks have not paid an equitable price for the damage caused, in part, by their reckless lending and profiteering strikes a powerful chord.

One moment the church was reclaiming a valuable role in hosting public protest and scrutiny, the next it was looking in turns like the temple which Jesus cleansed, or the officious risk-averse health and safety bureaucracy of urban legend. How could the dean and chapter at St Paul’s have let themselves get into such a position?"
(The Daily Telegraph)

What's to disagree with there?

I opened my own newspaper - The Guardian - today to discover a large cartoon depicting the current staff of St. Paul's Cathedral, walking down its steps, lined by riot police and singing (with jazz hands) the words to Al Jolson's "Mammey" ("Mammey, how I love you, how I love you, my Dear Ol' Mammey") Except the word "Mammey" was changed to "Mammon".

On "Have I Got News For You" this week Ian Hislop quipped that the attitude of the staff at St. Paul's had been "Of course we stand with the poor, but the gift shop is losing money."

I've been following this story on the blogs, particularly on the excellent Wounded Bird and felt that enough was being published elsewhere that I had nothing particularly to add but it seems to me that a tide has turned and it has turned very much in favour of Giles Fraser, now technically unemployed. Who would have imagined so many collumn inches and so many profiles in the quality press devoted to Giles Fraser?

I am a great admirer but appreciate that those who are more conservative than I have not found him to their taste. However, such views as "Goodbye Giles Fraser, you won't be missed." (Gavin Drake, Bishop of Lichfield's press officer) are seeming to be not only triumphalist but premature. "Sod your colleagues, eh, Dr. Fraser? The important thing is that you hold on to your reputation as a man of principle." (Toby Young, writing in the Daily Telegraph and blaming Dr. Fraser for single handedly costing the Cathedral hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost revenue) completely misses the point and in doing so makes Giles Fraser's point eloquently.

"I get fitted up as Wat Tyler, but I'm no radical." Dr. Fraser tells the Guardain. In relation to the root cause of the protest outside the Cathedral, he says, "Jesus is very clear that the love of money is the root of all evil ... Jesus wants to point us to a bigger picture of the world than simply shopping." He also noted, "I think there is a very clear question here to be addressed and the reason that the protesters have captured some of the public imagination is because a great many people think that something has gone wrong with the City of London and that the wealth generated by the City does not exist for the benefit of us all ..... As Christians you are called to engage with the world. That's the whole nature of the incarnation." He talked of St. Paul as a tentmaker by profession and noted "If you looked around and you tried to recreate where Jesus might be born - for me, I could imagine Jesus being born in the camp (but) it is not about my sympathies, or what I believe about the camp. I support the right to protest and in a perfect world we could have negotiated ... the church can not answer peaceful protest with violence ... I can not countenace the idea that this would be about Dale Farm on the steps of the St. Paul's.." Which seems to take us back to Lord Carey and his concern that the reputation of Christianity has been tarnished. There is a certain irony that Dr. Fraser was appointed to St. Paul's, at least in part, to develop ethical thinking within the church.

Can you imagine the headlines and the photos as the police move in to clear the anti-capitalist "We are the 99%" camp? I can and it won't do the CofE - or the wider church any good at all. I am wondering how many times the word "hypocrites" would feature in the coverage.

And yet poll findings suggest that 65% of CofE members feet the church was right to welcome the protesters and now we have the ridiculous situation that the camp remains and the Cathedral, having negotiated to overcome some of its Health and Safety concerns, is once again open to the public.

You couldn't make it up.

Marina Walker, writing in the Guardain commented "Giles Fraser ... seems to be one of the few people in the Church of England who thinks deeply about how to apply Christian teaching to the real world." I think she is right and what an indictment of the church that is. "The situation cries out for St. Paul's clergy to seize the occasion, fling open the doors and hold more and more debate ... about justice, poverty and responsibility."

I'll leave the last word to News Thump:

St Paul’s chancellor resigns after committing act of tolerance

The chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral is to step down from his post after acting in a way that is supposed to be synonymous with the Christian faith.

Reports suggest that Canon Dr Giles Fraser, who has been sympathetic to the protest camp outside the London landmark, considers his position untenable after mistakenly practising what he preaches.

Dr Fraser, who angered other members of the clergy when he refused to sanction the use of force to remove the protesters, could also face separate allegations of forgiving people.

The Dean of St Paul’s, the Right Reverend Graeme Knowles, said he was optimistic about reopening the cathedral as soon as any signs of clergy displaying the defining characteristics of Christianity were stopped.

“Love, tolerance and forgiveness are all well and good in theory, but they don’t pay the bills,” he insisted.

“We are currently losing £20,000 a day in donations as a result of these protesters.”

“The Church of England’s investments portfolio is currently worth only about £5.3bn, so as you can see, every penny counts.”

Speaking of the protesters, who have occupied the area around St Paul’s for the last 12 days, Reverend Knowles issued further criticism.

“I mean look at them,” he blasted.

“Long hair, beards, sandals, acting all preachy.”

“Who’s going to take any notice of anything they say?”

I note that there has been a further resignation from the staff of the Cathedral on the same grounds as Dr. Fraser. This looks set to run and run.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Monday, October 17, 2011

Presentation Evening at the Knowledge College

“Sir, do we have to copy all that out?”

Not again. How many times do we have to have this argument? I scan the board.

It’s only two sentences.

There is a pause while the individual concerned considers this.

“No. There are three.”

How do you work that out?

“The punctuation marks, of course.”

Show me.

“Well, there are two full stops and a comma.”

I am rendered temporarily speechless, then patiently explain the value of commas and full stops.

It’s still the same amount of writing in the end. As in NOT MUCH. GET A GRIP.

Towards the end of the lesson I note that Aaron (It’s pronounced Arran) - No actually it’s not – is looking set to explode. Aaron lives with a form of Autism and I watch out for him a lot. He is clearly not a happy bunny. I try to work out the reason for his discomfort. He is sitting near to three rather gossipy girls. Surely that isn’t it?

As the rest leave on the bell I ask Aaron to stop back.

I can see you’re not happy Aaron. Is it anything I can help with?

Aaron smoulders. He doesn’t make eye contact.

It’s those screaming harpies. It shouldn’t be allowed.”

Good vocabulary Aaron. Do I take it that you’d like to be moved in the room?

I demand it.”

Then it’s a deal.

Here at the Knowledge College we had our annual presentation evening last week. It is a nice occasion and every Head of Department is able to present effort and achievement awards to children in each year group.

Picture us: all the Heads of Department ranged on the stage in our best suits and frocks with the Head and the Chair of the Governors sitting at a separate table arrayed with shields and cups. We had listened to two of our talented musicians playing the piano and everyone was relaxed as the prize giving began. It was seamless as the youngsters came on stage in groups to receive their prizes, many having gone to a lot of trouble over their appearance, when, all of a sudden the lights went out.

Some good natured cat-calling later it was decided to proceed in the dark as the power was giving no indication that it was prepared to come on again. However there were some logistical issues, not least the steady procession of kids making their way across the stage without tripping over the feet of members of staff: what an ideal opportunity for payback!

“Do you like this kid?” Bill peered at his running order. “I could take him out. No one would know.”

There was a little laughing. It grew in volume. At this point I noticed the Head, his bum inelegantly stuck out towards the audience trying to read the cups and shields by the light of his mobile phone.

Things are really looking up.

Another procession of children stumbled by clutching an assortment of bling with the words of the Head’s stage whisper ringing in their ears. “Take this one. We’ll swap them over in daylight.”

A mysterious figure appeared on stage in an eerie glow. I knew the place was haunted and this one was particularly scary and ugly. But no, it was only one of the Assistant Heads clutching a torch he had liberated from a passing Site Services Operative who was, even as we realised the truth, valiantly struggling to bring light back to this darkened corner of Yorkshire.

Have you ever tried to play with electricity in the dark?


Steve’s hair’s been curly for a week - and he shaves his head!

The event was over and all too soon we were stumbling into the gallery for drinks and nibbles served and coordinated by the redoubtable Mrs. D. and Mrs. P. It was like a fairly grotto with tea lights everywhere and the ambiance of a posh restaurant. A triumph ladies.

Isn’t it amazing what a woman carries in her handbag on the off chance it might come in handy?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Sunday Sermon: Jesus and the Roman Coin

Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

You know how you get drawn in to the anecdotes and family stories of people you spend a lot of time with? Friends, colleagues and the like? I’ve shared the same office with three colleagues for a number of years: one Methodist, one Sikh and one Muslim. I was concentrating on some marking (this in itself is unusual what with marking being akin to spiritual death and about the only thing that might cause me take the name of the Lord in vain during a school day) and I half tuned in to this little tale believing I’d missed the start:

“ …. So the boy wanted £100.00 very badly.” (Is this his nephew? I wasn’t really listening.) “He prayed for two weeks but nothing happened. Then he decided to write God a letter requesting £100.00. When the Post Office received the letter addressed simply to God, they didn’t know how to respond so decided to send it to the Prime Minister.” (Now I’m taking notice.) “Mr. Cameron was so impressed, touched, and amused that he instructed Mr. Osborne to send the boy £5.00. Mr. Cameron thought that this would appear to be a lot of money to a small boy.” (He clearly doesn’t know the children I know.) “The boy was delighted with the £5.00 and immediately sat down to write a thank you note to God that read: "Dear God, Thank you very much for sending me the money. However, I noticed that for some reason you had to send it via the Inland Revenue and, as usual, they deducted too much.”

“What? Is this a true story?” I ask my Methodist friend. (He teaches Geography – enough said.)

The others look at me as if I am mad and there is some rolling of eyes. Not for the first time I had missed – and therefore messed up - a joke.
Ah, the Inland Revenue: of course no one likes paying taxes and this theme is very relevant to today’s Gospel reading.

Take a coin out of your pocket – go on, we’ve not had the collection yet. Look at any of the coins in your pocket and you will see on one side a portrait of the Queen surrounded by an inscription. It’s the same for the coinage of any country and its Head of State. This design reflects the coinage of imperial Rome where the portrait was that of the emperor. The inscription, in Latin abbreviation, included the emperor’s name and his titles.

As our Gospel story begins, we find Jesus again in the Temple teaching, and the stage is set for that Gospel drama where Jesus challenges his opponents by making reference to a Roman coin and in doing so raises for his disciples down the ages the vexed question of the relationship between religion and politics - or church and state if you prefer.

In this Gospel extract, we see members of two opposing first-century religious parties teaming up in an effort to trick Jesus. On one side of this unlikely alliance were the Herodians, Jews who support the local puppet ruler and who basically kept their power by cooperating with the occupying Roman government in the hope that compromise would ensure the survival of the Jewish people under Roman rule. They advocated paying the tax as a way of appeasing their Roman overlords.

On the opposite side of the debate stood the Pharisees, a group of religious leaders who rigorously held to the teachings of the law of Moses and the prophets and who believed that compromising with a political power like Rome compromised the very faith of the Jews. The Pharisees, though not advocates of violent revolution, were loyal to Judaism and its God.
The Herodians put political expedience first; the Pharisees put the Jewish faith first.

So, it must have come as a surprise to Jesus to see both Pharisees and Herodians coming to him as a group and seeking to trap him with the no-win question which began, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no one, for you do not regard the position of human beings.”

Now, you know you are in trouble when your enemies begin to flatter you, so Jesus must have been instantly on his guard. They wanted to force Jesus to side with one group or another: either with the revolutionaries working to drive out the Romans, or with the collaborators who profited from the occupation. “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” If he responded in favour of the Herodians, agreeing that taxes should be paid to Caesar, he would be seen by the Pharisees and many Jews as being weak on following the laws of Moses and as giving in to the oppressive government which was killing Jews. But if he sided with the Pharisees and agreed that taxes should not be paid to the Roman overlords, he could be accused of treason and he would lose the people’s respect.

Either way Jesus stood to lose. The question was a perfect trap.
Jesus recognizes their malice immediately and challenges them. “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?”

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”

One of the interesting things about this encounter is that Jesus never actually answers their question.

Someone passes Jesus a Roman coin. That doesn’t sound so odd to us today but the Temple had its own currency: inside the Temple, one of these religious leaders was carrying a coin bearing the head of the Emperor – who claimed to be divine. Such a coin should not have been carried into the temple of the God of Israel, who forbids such images. And so Jesus trips them up beyond any hope of recovery by showing that they were bearing proclamations of Caesar's lordship into the very Temple of the God they claimed to be serving with such single-mindedness.

Jesus then gives his famous response. He lifts a tax controversy to a different level, well above the deadlock between revolutionary and collaborator. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s…” In other words, you can pay him this coin because his name and portrait appear on them so he has a just claim.

“… and give to God the things that are God’s” What belongs to God? Consider! If the emperor claims a coin that bears his image, then certainly God claims whatever bears his image. And what bears the image of God? Of course Pharisees and Herodians are familiar with the Scriptures. They know the Genesis account of how God makes humanity in the divine image. Interestingly, Matthew doesn’t tell us what happened to the coin and I have this picture of Jesus in an act of incredibly powerful symbolism saying “Give to God the things that are God’s” and putting the coin in his own pocket.

Well, that settles the question, doesn’t it? There are things that belong to Caesar, like the money with which we pay our taxes, and there are things that belong to God. Such as …

Such as …

Well, us.

And there’s the problem.

Jesus threw the question back at the Pharisees and Herodians but his statement just raises more questions. How and where do you draw the line between the things that belong to Caesar and the things that belong to God? What are the things of Caesar and what are the things of God? While I admire Jesus for giving an answer that, according to our text, leaves the questioners from both parties walking away amazed at his wisdom, I walk away from Jesus scratching my head in puzzlement. What kind of answer is this, Jesus? What are you saying by this cryptic response that we are to give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's?

It is right to pay the emperor taxes using coins with his image. But it is an even greater responsibility to give God what bears his image, namely oneself.

Certainly Christians down the ages have disagreed about what Jesus is saying here, and their different interpretations have led to very different understandings of how the Christian faith and politics should or shouldn't mix.

Was Jesus suggesting, as some have argued, that we as people of faith live in two separate worlds, two separate political realms, the realm ruled by Caesar and the realm ruled by God, and that we are to go through life recognizing the divides between the two and doing our best to keep them separate? Such thinking has led some Christians to argue that topics related to politics have no place in the pulpits of Christian churches.

When political authority tries to muzzle the church on political matters and when the church acquiesces, the very prophetic witness that lies at the heart of the ministries of Jesus and the prophets is always in danger of being silenced or compromised. You may remember the contoversy that the publication of the report “Faith in the City” caused in the 1980s. An unnamed Conservative Cabinet Minister was reported as dismissing the report, before it was published, as "pure Marxist theology" and another claimed the report proved that the Anglican Church was governed by a "load of Communist clerics". Margaret Thatcher famously decried the Church's comments. The spin then was, as always, the church should stick to spiritual matters and stay out of politics.

Only recently the Archbishop of Canturbury has been accused of “meddling in politcs” by a government which had not taken kindly to being told “With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted.” But, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: "When people tell me the Bible is not about politics, I ask myself, do they read the same Bible as I do?"

Back to the gospel: I don't think Jesus was answering the question those two political parties were asking him that day. I think he was telling them that they were asking the wrong question.

The real question is: "What does it mean to be a true follower of the God revealed in Jesus Christ? To be one who belongs to God heart, soul, mind and strength. And what would it mean if you allowed that identity to shape everything you do in the political arena?"

This drama does not answer all questions about what it means to be both a citizen in society and a Christian. It does not resolve every dilemma about obedience and resistance. But it does make clear what moral inquiry must take first place: Do I give myself to God? Am I in right relationship to God?

If the answer to these last two questions is “yes,” then perhaps I can live justly in my other relationships, complex and challenging though they may be. If the answer is “no,” if I have somehow defrauded God, then everything else in my life will be out of line, and whatever my good intentions, I cannot live justly with others.

Certainly there are limits such an identity would place upon us in the political arena. To be a follower of Jesus Christ means that we cannot go along with policies that we believe to be against the will of God. We must speak out against them, as Jesus and the prophets consistently did in their own day. Lying in order to provoke war, torturing people in the name of national security, turning a deaf ear to the cries of asylum seekers and refugees, these things are not of God, and I see no way we can justify them in his name.

Nor can we go into the polling station, only looking out for our own self interests. The real question for Christians is not: what's in this election for me? The real question for Christians is: what is in this election for all of God's children, and especially for the least of these, those for whom Christ had special compassion.

We also seem to have forgotten that Jesus was a Jew who every Sabbath of his adult life had recited the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your might.” The God of Jesus has a claim on all of life. So if God demands all of life, what is left to render unto Caesar?


Get rich quick scam

I started the day with Yr 7 yesterday. I like Yr 7 very much. They are eleven and they make me laugh.

"Sir, I'm ever so sorry but I've lost my pen. Could you lend me one?"

Now, anticipating that kids would, from time to time, lose a pen or have their pen run out on them, I have been buying packs of biros. (There are always also, of course, the willfully penless.)

I can do better than that. I can sell you one for 10p. Brand new and never been used. Guaranteed to last quite a while.

Lexie looks doubtful until I show her the pen. It is a basic plastic biro but the plastic is silver.

I can see her mind working. The turning cogs reveal the thought process which include the words "shiny" and "pretty".

"Can I buy two?"

Certainly. It's always good to have a spare.

"Sir, can I buy one too?"

"And me?"

"Sir can you change a pound? Never mind I'll have 10."

"Can I get one for my mum?"

Word travels fast.

"Sir, have you got any of those silver pens?"

The boys in Yr 9 think they look futuristic and a bit space-agey. My bottom set Yr 11 just think they are cool.

"I've not had a pen all year so far." confides one. "But I like this."

"Yeah, its a bit like mirror." my Barbie look-alike observes.

As I watch her peering at it and preening her hair, I ponder how she intends to put on more lippy using a metalic silver biro as a mirror. She succeeds admirably.

As I walk to the car park at the end of the day I realise I am listing to the left.

I am richer by £4.20. Mainly in 10p pieces.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The joy of multiculturalism

I was in the staff room on Friday morning waiting for the briefing to begin. As usual I was sitting with Jagtar, Wayne and Martin. The conversation got around to eating out. Remembering my birthday meal I told the others:

I'm going for a curry tonight.

"Me too." said Martin.

"And me." said Wayne.

As one man we turned to look at Jagtar.

"I'm off out for fish and chips."


Friday, September 30, 2011

The power of rumour

I had my nice Yr 11s this morning. They had come from P.E. and most of the boys were late - as in later than usual. To give them their due they settled well enough but there was some talk about some poor lad who had broken his ankle playing rugby.

"But what about the sniper?" asked Jade.

Sniper? I should know better than to ask.

Every hand is in the air and I see my carefully crafted lesson evaporating before my eyes.

"Yeah, Bethany was playing tennis, right, and she saw this man wearing comabts and camouflage and carrying a gun over his shoulder."

I look sceptical.

Are you sure it wasn't a guitar or golf clubs?

"No. She said it was a gun in some sort of case and when he saw her he started to open it and she legged it."

There is a general hubub.

Look guys, there's no point speculating and gossiping about it. We don't know the truth as none of us were there and its a waste of brainpower and emotional energy to discuss it. So, back to how Jesus dealt with foreigners.....

Twenty minutes later a Behaviour Support Worker comes in to the room and says in the loudest stage whisper imaginable:

"At break time they aren't to go outside. Make sure they use the internal routes to get to the dining room."

"Sir, is it a sniper? Is there a sniper on the roof?"

I know as much as you, which is next to nothing, so until someone tells us otherwise we'll carry on as normal.

"Someone's trying to kill us and you want us to talk about Jesus?"

Seems as good a time as any.

Things calm down and some work is produced.

I hear the dulcet tones of Miss Drummond outside the room.


"I'd like to see her head splattered against the window."

Ryan: out. Into Mr McVeigh's room.

"I was only joking."

That's akin to telling the check-in attendant that you've got a bomb in your bag. As in NOT FUNNY.

A chastened Ryan slummocks into my colleagues room.

"We're all going to die."

Shut up. This isn't America.

The bell goes and they file out obediently through Mr. McVeigh's room. My colleagues and I sit in the workroom and have our break, discussing the turn of events.

"My lot couldn't use an internal route" laments Mrs. Singh. "It was chaos."

The bell goes again for the start of lessons.

"Sir, Sir. Did you hear about the boy who was shot playing rugby?"

"Sir, there are police all round the school grounds."

There aren't. The school is a secure site and we appear to be in lockdown. The police are, rather half-heartedly one feels, "scouring" the area beyond the school grounds.

The word now is that Bethany is having second thoughts about what she saw. Bethany is rumoured to be a bit of a drama queen.

Update: The police found no one matching the description of Bethany's gunman anywhere near the school. Things returned to relative normality. ("I'm not going out there with snipers on the roof." Shut up Callum or I'll shoot you myself..)

The lad with the broken ankle turned out to be a boy in my own form. It is a very bad break and he was in hospital today having a metal plate fitted. Spare a thought for Liam and his family.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Open Evening at the Knowledge College

Doesn't time fly when you're having a good time?

Yesterday I left the house at 7.00am and returned at 10.00pm. This was because of our annual open eveining where we put on a show for the kids who will be joining us next year and their parents.

It was an odd day because my new cohort of student teachers arrived and I was involved in inducting them rather than teaching my usual classes. While we were on the guided tour we popped in to my Yr 7 class and they announced that they much preffered it when Mrs. Yeates took the lesson and could she always teach them please?

At luch time we hosted a group of pensioners from the local community for lunch and our kitchen staff served a lovely roast with apple crumble to follow. I sat next to a lady called Beryl. She was very elegant and coiffed. Her clothes were very classy and age appropriate and she was wearing killer heels. She is 75.

"She shouldn't be wearing heels you know" her friend told us. "She's just had a hip replacement."

"I've not worn flats for nigh on forty years. I've no intention of starting now."

Beryl, it turns out, is a former Vogue model.

You don't get a lot of those in the general locale.

I set my class up for the baying hoards: plenty of current pupils' work and three little Buddhist shrines put together by my Yr 7s with flowers, candles, insense and food offerings etc. I logged on to Youtube to find some Buddhist chanting to play in the background for added mood and turned the lights down low.

Five minutes later my Sikh colleague popped in from the next classroom.

"Why are you playing Sikh music?"

So much for Youtube's categorising relaibility.

I decided to keep it on in the short term because it was rather lovely music. (Have a look at anything by Snatam Kaur on youtube.)

Two minutes later my other Sikh colleague popped in.

"You do know that's Punjabi?"

So, not a Buddhist then?

(These two ladies have been teaching me basic Punjabi phrases which I then go and try out on my pal Jagtar. I don't know why I bother. My Punjabi seems better than his.

"When I visit the Punjab my family and friend tease me because my Punjabi is so lamentable.")

I am pleased with the classroom and its displays and join my colleague for the meal laid on for those who have opted not to go home before the event. It is fish, chips and mushy peas, pure comfort food, and once again the kitchen staff have done us proud. It occurs to me that I've now had two quality main meals at my employer's expense and I consider myself well pleased.

Ben arrives. Ben is 12 and in Yr 8 and a nicer lad you couldn't wish to meet. He is my pupil assistant for the evening. I rather suspect he is here because he couldn't come up with an alternative engagement quickly enough. You know, watching paint dry, that sort of thing. His job is to reassure any children that transfer to high school is survivable. After all Ben doesn't look (too) traumatised.

Business is brisk and we have a fair few come in to the room. I have cleverly ensured maximum footfall by fixing it so that my classroom is on a through route to Geography and all points west. If you want to know about those subjects you have to come via me and I will engage you about Religious Studies and my lovely colleague Devinder will ... surruptitiously eat the sweets from the Yr7 Buddhist shrines! (You just can't get the staff.) I later discover that Ben has developed a taste for the sweet dates that have been put out. Good grief. Is nothing sacred?

I hear some folk talking outside the classroom.

"Its. R.E. I hated R.E...."

.... and your child will still have to study it so why don't you come in and see what its really all about.

A rather shamefaced couple slide in with their child in tow and we talk. After a period of ritual punishment (me talking about how R.S. is seriously misunderstood and how we rely on parents to be on-message about ALL curriculum subjects) I allow them to proceed to Geography.

I note too that it is the women who talk and engage. The men seem largely there to make the number up. Is there a league game on tonight? Some of these guys couldn't look less interested without the aid of mogadon.

"Pooh, it really smells in here." announces a child. My first instinct is to launch into a short but stirring lecture on the significance of first impressions but I transcend the moment and ask sweetly ...and why do you think that is?

She shrugs her shoulders and through the mouthfull of gum mumbles something unintelligable that my experience tells me is teenspeak for "I don't know."

Now we don't get any marks at GCSE for a shrug of the shoulders do we? Try again.

Her mother, sensing perhaps the way the wind was blowing, pointed her offspring to the insense stick. Out of the corner of my eye I notice that Ben is eating something.

The mother and child make a break for Geography.

Thanks for popping in. I look forward to teaching you next year.

I am feeling a bit peckish. I'm sure I put an apple on that shrine earlier.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sunday Sermon: The man with two sons: Matthew 21.23-32

Some Context: You've no doubt heard the phrase it never rains but it pours? This morning was one of those occasions.

I went to bed last night reassured that I'd got everything ready for today: I'd printed off my sermon and done a couple of spare copies for those who can't really get a grip on the loop system and I'd read it over a few times.

I woke up this morning cursing myself because that little nagging doubt I'd sat on yesterday had become a full blown thought.

It was the wrong sermon.

Now one of the advantages of being a teacher is that the summer break affords me the opportunity to get ahead of myself and research and prepare sermons. I'd looked at the rota and got them all done well in advance. For some unaccountable reason I'd printed off the wrong one. I'd printed off Jesus and the Roman Coin rather than The Man with Two Sons.

Now that's hardly the end of the world and so I logged on, found the right one and pressed print.

The printer can not print. You are out of magenta ink the screen told me helpfully. Don't bother me with trivia: I want to print in black. Whoever prints a sermon in magenta?

Not having magenta, it seems, renders black inoperative.

What to do?

I ring my friend Steve, my Area Dean, and explain the situation. "If I pop round with my USB stick, would you mind printing it off for me?"

I arrive with said USB stick and Steve, having made me a cup of tea, logs on. I put my USB stick in his computer and a warning sign comes up. Removable Device Corrupt. Steve goes through the "fix" options and eventually we have access to my menu.

There is no sermon.

"Have you had breakfast?" Steve asks me.

I ring home and ask my beloved to send the sermon as an e-mail attachment. I sit and wait while she goes through the whole log-on routine and locates the sermon. It arrives. It is "Jesus and the Roman Coin." I ponder just turning up and reading and preaching from the wrong gospel in the hope that no one would notice, but that would still leave the problem that in a couple of weeks someone else would get to preach on Jesus and the Roman Coin. I speculate whether anyone would actually notice the same reading twice. I decide to ring home again. There is a sharp exchange and the correct sermon arrives on Steve's screen.

His printer takes three weeks to print it off.

"What's it about?" Steve asks.

"Obedience." I lie, saying the first thing that comes into my head. I wrote it weeks ago: I've no idea what It says.

It then occurs to me that my sermon was kept on an external hard drive and I could simply have unpugged that and taken it to Steve's.

And all this before 9.30. I still have to get home, shower, shave, put on my Sunday clothes and practice a sermon I can barely remember.

Still, who else can say they had breakfast with the Area Dean?

It was, therefore, with rather more conviction than normal that I prayed: "May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord."

Matthew 21. 23-32

There was a father who had two daughters. The holiday period was coming to an end and although the topic of bedroom tidying had come up a number of times no noticeable progress had been made. Tiring of the mantra, “Daaaaad! It’ll be done, chill.” he decided to put his foot down. A deadline was set. “You have three days. I want it done by Sunday.” Time passed. More time passed. Saturday night arrived. “Chloe’s rung. I’m sleeping over at her house tonight.” And one daughter was off, leaving her bedroom looking as if she had been the victim of a particularly thorough burglary – except that’s how it usually looked.

The father turned to the other daughter and raised an eyebrow. “But it’s the X Factor tonight.” He raised the other eyebrow. “Dad, you look stupid. Stop doing that.” This daughter sighed as if she carried the weight of the word’s injustices on her shoulders and disappeared: for the next hour or so she passed through with bags destined for the bin. There was even some attempt to differentiate rubbish for black and green bins and the sound of both Hoover and washing machine could be heard. At eight o’clock she settled down to watch the televised ritual humiliation of self deluded pop wannabees.

Which of the two did the will of their father?

I’m guessing that we can all identify with today’s Gospel story even if we have to adapt it somewhat to fit our own circumstances – our own children, colleagues, friendship groups, anywhere in fact where there is an expectation of obligation and where promises are easily made …. and easily broken.

So today Matthew relates this incident from the life of Jesus: two sons are given a job, both promise to complete it but only one does.

It’s not actually a very interesting story as it stands is it? Of course what we have here is Matthew’s summary written some years later, so we miss the full impact of the original with its greater detail, wit and nuances; maybe even with some banter between Jesus and his listeners. Choosing an incident about family relationships, of course, ensures that Jesus’ audience will identify with the story. If football had been invented in the first century you can bet that Jesus would have used it as an analogy because his audience would have been drawn in. Remember, this is a consummate story teller. He once told the story of a man who set off on a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho and was robbed on the way. I can imagine a modern day Jesus sitting in a motorway service station and relating an incident to a group of salesmen and truckers over a coffee about a man who set off from the Heartshead Moor service station on the M62 and had his car hijacked along the way. That’s how he worked: talk to people about what they know.

It may help, though, to be clear about who Jesus was talking to. There are two audiences here as there often were: Jesus is talking directly to his followers and the crowd in the temple. We are told that he was teaching, but Matthew isn’t more specific. Along come the Temple Authorities, clearly put out that Jesus was trespassing on their spiritual territory during a religious festival and the ongoing battle of wills between Jesus and the Pharisees continues to gather pace. It’s a well established pattern: the Pharisees seek to entrap Jesus into saying something they can use against him and Jesus responds in such a way as to make them look foolish and in a way that causes those who witnessed the exchange to question their authority.

It starts with the question “By whose authority are you teaching here?” The attempt is to undermine Jesus in the eyes of the crowd “Look, we’re the orthodox here. We’ve been to theological college; we’ve got certificates for goodness sake. And you; you’re just a carpenter. What do you know? Shut up.”

And in response Jesus, as he often does in true rabbinic style, answers a question with a question. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Of course John had been very popular with the people and he’d been executed. No wonder the Pharisees were careful about their answer; they recognised the pitfall in the question. “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why didn’t you believe him then?’ "But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we’re on dodgy ground with the crowd because they think John is a prophet.” So they said, “We do not know.”

“Then I’m not telling you about my source of authority.” Round one to Jesus. Instead he told the story of the father and his two sons. Now this was a story for everyone – then and now - because we can all take something from it, but it was particularly targeted at the Pharisees and given that he had already compared them to fig trees that looked good but had no fruit – all show and no substance - they must have realised that this would be another attack. And so it was and we are left with the Pharisees once again confounded and confused. Jesus compared them to the son who made promises but delivered nothing and most disturbing to them, compared the crowd, the sinners and the marginalised, to the obedient son. Round two to Jesus.

Can you imagine how they felt? They were the religious leaders and they took that role seriously. In many respects these were society’s good people; they were charged with the moral and spiritual welfare of the people and they did not take that responsibility lightly: and here was Jesus telling them they were disobedient to God. It would be akin to telling the House of Bishops that they'd got it wrong.

(No. Don't even think about going there.)

I think what we often forget is that these people should have been Jesus’ natural constituency and his natural allies. It would have made perfect sense if the Scribes and Pharisees, the moral and spiritual leaders of the day, had become Jesus’ disciples and turned to him in droves. We are terribly biased against them because we know how the full story resolves and we tend to think of them as bad people. They weren’t. But they didn’t get Jesus. They weren’t open to seeing an alternative perspective that while it was revolutionary, wouldn’t have required too big an adjustment to their theological worldview.

Jesus and the Pharisees working together – what a change in society that would have brought. And let’s not forget, some of them did buy into this alternative. Nicodemus, we are told, was a follower and of course later St. Paul would make a dramatic conversion.

The sad thing was that instead of seeing the possibilities, most Pharisees felt superior and therefore threatened by Jesus’ teaching and this blinded them both to Jesus’ message and consequently to their own inadequacies: theirs had become a religion of legality, of rules and regulations; a religion which understood all about God’s transcendence and judgement but little about his closeness and his love.

O.K. So what? Fair enough, it’s an interesting piece of religious history and it tells us once again about the stubbornness and self-interest of the religious elite and of Jesus’ superior debating skills.

Why should I care? This story has to have the power to touch me today or its retelling is meaningless. Remember the parable of the sower? The seed is the word of God and it lands in different places and grows, or not, depending on how hospitable the environment is. We could be those who put the full stop here and go away merely thinking “Nice story. Let’s have coffee” Or we could be those who realise that there is more to the story which needs acting upon.

This is a story about the inadequacy of religious insiders. Well we’re religious insiders aren’t we? We are members of the Church of England. It’s hard to imagine who else might be more on the inside in this country in religious terms, than those in the national church. If the vineyard in the story is the Kingdom of God and there is work to be done, which of the two sons are we?

This parable is an invitation from Christ to go and do God’s work in the vineyard, in the reality of the world in which we live. The vineyard, the world, is always in a mess. There are earthquakes, floods, volcanoes or tsunamis. We see them on the T.V. week in and week out. Hurricanes of the East coast of the USA, earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan. There are always wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq currently and there is political unrest throughout the Arab world. There are always families under stress. There are always poor families with not enough money and emotional resources to make it. There are always refugees and asylum seekers who have the most dreadful stories of loss and trauma to tell.

And what is the reaction of the church to this pain and devastation in the world around us, far and near? Too often, we merely hold our worship services in the middle of the vineyard.

In other words, this parable is an invitation for us not to be like the Pharisees. It is a challenge to go into God’s messed up world and do the necessary work.

Ah, good, some practical applications from the gospel. Well … yes and no. I can’t tell you what you should be doing in the vineyard. I’m very much with St. Paul here who tells us in Philippians to “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Beyond the general principles of Micah Ch 6: “What does the Lord require of you? Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God;" I’m afraid your on your own. We’re all on our own.

At Vicar School the very first module we studied was that of Mission. It is called the Missio Dei – the Mission of God, and the thing that really challenged me in the study of all these historical models of how the church had done mission down the ages was the simple idea that mission is God’s mission. In essence the Missio Dei is not about us deciding what needs doing; you know, “Let’s decide our mission initiative for this year, let’s have a meeting”, that sort of thing, it is about seeing where God is already at work and joining in. To me the challenge of this gospel story for us church insiders is for each of us to seek to discern where God is already at work in our society and to join him there, using the skills and talents that he has given us as appropriate. And it won’t necessarily be the same place for each of us.

It is a challenge, but I think this Gospel passage shows it’s also an imperative.


Monday, September 19, 2011

So, who exactly is in charge of the asylum?

My timetable is generally a very good one. I have some lovely classes full of nice kids. My Yr. 7s, for example, are a delight and a joy. They are sweet and funny and unselfconscious and a little bit needy. Given the choice I'd have them all day every day.

In contrast is one of my year 9 groups. It has 29 pupils and I can just about fit them in my room. In and amongst is Ronnie, who I taught in a small, low ability group last year. Ronnie is a big lad for his age and has a foul mouth: "It's fucking shite this." He wants to be a doorman ("Like my Dad.") In addition to being disaffected, as we say in education (also known as being a bloody nuisance,) he can barely read and write. I have made myself very unpopular in certain quarters by questioning whether he can access the curriculm and whether it wouldn't be a better use of his time to be coached in additional literacy and numeracy under the auspices of the Special Needs Department rather than studying R.S. I am also wondering whether, on balance, we might not have been too indulgent of his behaviour in the past because he has never been taught before in a mainstream class of more than twelve pupils.

A quick look at his timetable shows that, like last year, he is mainly in small "nurture" groups where the lesson content can be easily targetted and differentiated, which is exactly as it should be. With me he is in a class of 29 in a mixed ability setting where some of these youngsters will have a target grade of A. The same is true for Drama, Music and Art and in all these subjects he is expected to cope in such a large group and without additional support. Perhaps more to the point is my fear that his behaviour will negatively impact on the others in the group, and damage to some extent their chances of achieving as they should.

I have tried to minimise his impact on the rest of the class by seating him at the back with a spare seat beside him. As I am letting them in on their first lesson, and telling them where to sit, I am pleasantly surprised by the arrival of a lady I've not met before, so I make the assumption that she is a new support assistant and I direct her to the empty seat beside Ronnie.

She declines in a slightly flustered way and tells me that she is here to support Ben.

There is no Ben on my register.

Ben is waiting in the doorway. He is not yet on the school roll although he looks very smart in his brand new uniform, eating a packet of crisps.

I am perplexed and a bit flustered myself. My colleague is very apologetic. Ben, it seems, has been outside mainstream schooling for eighteen nonths at a Pupil Referral Unit and is now being reintegrated. He has behavioural issues and suffers from Attention Defecit Disorder.

"We were told to follow Ronnie's timetable because they have similar problems and are of a similar level of ability. I have to say they discovered each other very quickly and I don't think they should be taught together in the same classes."

Neither do I.

I persevere with the lesson and there is a constant undercurrent - ("It's shite this.") - from Ronnie and a lot of leaning over in an attempt to distract and engage Ben whose minder is involved in a losing battle to keep him on task. I find this quite difficult and feel constantly distracted by what is going on at the back. It's the first lesson and everyone else is pretty well behaved but I can already sense that the group dynamic is under threat: there is a lot of looking around at Ronnie and it is clear that many of the kids are pretty astounded by his antics, not having had many dealings with him before in mainstream lessons.

I fear that some on the fringes will become emboldened to begin to ape his behaviour and I really don't need this.

I send an e-mail to our Head of Special Needs. I explain that this is a large mixed ability class and I don't believe these two should be taught together. Fortunately one is not yet formally on role so my expectation is that he will be allocated elsewhere when his timetable is finalised. She is initially sympathetic and says she will try to look at the timetable.

Ben is allocated to my class.

I complain again that these two should not be taught together and question again whether they can access the curriculum. I am told that this is largely down to me and that my differentiation of the work will make all things possible.

Deafened by the sound of bucks being passed I have the temerity to disagree: In all the sets I teach there is a broad abilty range so I am quite used to differentiating work for students but this is differentiation within the standard ability range for each set. What I am being asked to do is to differntiate work for pupils who are a) disaffected and b) well below the achievement levels for their age group.

"You do know I'm only here for a few more weeks?" Ben's support assistant asks.

I did not.

"We can't put Ben into another group. The ones he might have gone into are bigger groups than yours." A senior colleague tells me.

It strikes me that this is hardly thinking outside the box. I stress again my fear for the learning of the group as a whole, that neither boy can access the curriculum and that they should not be taught together in large mainstream groups.

I approach my Local Authority Subject Advisor about the procedure for disapplying someone from the requirement to be taught R.S.

"Ronnie has a right to be taught R.S." I am told by my Special Needs Colleague. "It is neither fair nor appropriate to take Ronnie out of R.S. at this stage. Ronnie will undoubtedly live in a multicultural community and needs to be equipped to deal with the beliefs of those around him. He will also have to deal with a range of the issues that get dealt with almost exclusively in RE: it is only fair and appropriate that he is equipped to understand what some of these issues entail"

"Not if he can not access the curriculum and not if his behaviour compromises the learning of others." It occurs to me at this point that no one is listening. No one wants to comment on the fact that these two should not be taught together nor that they can not cope with the level of work.

I suggest that one of them be swapped with a child from one of the other groups. At this stage in the school year this is quite common as things settle down and we try to ensure that individuals get the best provision.

Instead I am told that Ronnie will have a support assistant with him in the lessons and that senior members of staff will take it in turns to sit in on the lesson.

So, there will be four adults in the class and twenty nine children.

I don't have enough seats.

I'll take my nervous breakdown now please.