Thursday, 30 June 2011

'The workers united ...'

Pen at the pre-march gathering
Until today my wife has never been on strike. Her union, the ATL, has never once taken industrial action on a national scale in its entire 120 year history. Today, that all changed. She went on strike and she joined the march in Manchester organised by the teachers' unions. I went with her.

I've been on rowdier marches. As you'd expect, a protest march by teachers is a pretty civilised affair. 'No talking there in the back row!' But there was a genuine sense of solidarity and seriousness of purpose. And also a sense of grievance and indignation at the things some of our politicians have been saying. 'The politicians are telling us that we are wrong,' said the very mild and moderate ATL guy. 'But that has only served to stiffen our resolve.'

Ok - so the calumnies and aspersions cast by Cameron and his cronies pale into insignificance against Maggie Thatcher's notorious, 'the enemy within' comments. But steady on, Tory Boy, you push people too far and they'll push you back. Teachers know how to deal with bullies.

I learned a few lessons today. Firstly that I've lost my way a bit in recent years. I've not been on a protest march since I was a student - although I've been on other kinds of marches since. I'd also ended up on the 'dark side' in management ...

But this was my milieu. Getting out there on the streets to show solidarity in a just cause. The highlight of the march for me was when a train passed over the viaduct alongside the Castlefields Arena as the rally was taking place and the driver gave a hoot of support. Yayy!

Ok - so I don't have a lot of time for the oddballs and the anarchists and all the hangers-on who appear at any demonstration, no matter what the cause. But there were people there today who'd never marched before, who'd never dream of marching or protesting under normal circumstances. They don't deserve criticism from right-wing politicians or the Tory press. They deserve our respect. And they deserve a hearing. Their presence spoke volumes.

Another lesson was that the police can't count. Or, perhaps more accurately, choose not to. They've got their helicopters, their rather embarrassed guys with the cameras to take pictures of the militants - but their estimation of the numbers in Manchester today were around 2,000, as opposed to the 5,000 estimated by the organisers. Estimating crowd numbers is never an exact science, but I was there and I'd estimate the numbers to be somewhere between the two - certainly further towards 5,000 than 2,000.

Surely the police must have sophisticated ways of calculating crowd numbers? So if they did err on the skimpy side, what's their agenda?

More encouragingly, perhaps, I've always found the British bobby to have a very dry and insightful sense of humour. I was both rather perplexed and impressed when a young bobby appeared on the pavement alongside the march taking pictures of some of the activists. He was quickly surrounded by some of the more anarchic types - one of them with a megaphone urging him to take off his 'silly hat and silly jacket' and join the march. He took it in good grace and carried on taking photos. Although he clearly didn't like it when people started taking photos of him. Funny that ...

But he carried on taking pictures of them taking pictures of him taking pictures of them ...

Anyway, at the end of the rally when the organisers thanked everyone who'd contributed, special mention was made of the police and they were given a round of applause. Teachers are aware that the police are contractually unable to strike and that their pensions are just as vulnerable as anyone else's. 'We're standing in solidarity with the police on their pensions too,' the organisers said.

One of the coppers, watching from a vantage point, responded with a slight, elbow level wave. It was slightly cheeky, perhaps a tad ironic, yet also rather furtive and subversive. Very warm, very human, very heartening. Good for him. Well done that bobby. He's just trying to do a job like anyone else. And let's hope he's able to retire with his pension intact.

Friday, 24 June 2011

'It's the Church, stupid.'

The minister of the Baptist Church we used to belong to in Leeds came back from attending the ordination of a friend into the Roman Catholic priesthood in Rome. He told me that he'd enjoyed his time there, meeting Christians from a different tradition and finding out more about how Rome ticked. He'd found it pretty cold and austere, though, and, unsurprisingly perhaps, had felt, as one of these upstart schismatics that the answer to every question he was likely to ask would come back, 'It's the Church, stupid ...'

Us Prots have never been that good at ecclesiology. Sort yourself out some kind of relationship with Christ, read your Bible and the church thing would look after itself. Other than a series of sessions over three consecutive Sundays, there wasn't much taught about the Church in our Baptist setting.

There was a distinctive ecclesiology among the Baptists, of course, in the way things operated - with the congregational structure and the 'Church Meeting' where decisions were made.

Further back, in our restorationist days with the so-called 'house-church' or 'new church' movement, ecclesiology was very much on the agenda. We had it sussed. We had the Ephesians 4 ministries - 'apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.' We were restoring the Church to its original purity and power, and some of us believed that we would exceed those halcyon early days because we'd sort all problems out entirely. Hardly surprising that we were soon disabused of that one ... well, most of us were anyway.

I was reminded of both our restorationist days and the Baptist minister's comments at an Orthodox conference I attended yesterday. Someone had dropped out so my Orthodox priest pal kindly invited me along. I only attended the one day but I heard more ecclesiology than I had in years. No more surprising in an Orthodox setting, of course, than it would be in an RC one. If you believe that yours is the One True Catholic and Apostolic Church then it's going to feature pretty strongly in your programme.

'It's the Church, stupid.'

But wait ... seeing as how the theme of the conference was The Gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church, there was an added dimension, one which the Orthodox Church as the Ark of Salvation feels itself robust enough to handle ... without the timbers igniting and the vessel leaking or capsizing.

Our local Anglican parish church is moving in a more charismatic direction, and I was surprised to find quite a few people at the conference who'd been involved with charismatic things. Not that they'd call themselves charismatic in the Western sense, of course. The Deanery which held the conference is a missionary one and many of the clergy and conference delegates were either disaffected Anglicans or former charismatic evangelicals.

Once I'd got over the impression that I was at a Lord of the Rings convention - Saruman led one session, Sauron a second and Gandalf a third - I found that they don't do things that differently to the rest of us. They use PowerPoint (for lectures, not worship of course), they have coffee breaks, they have break-out and discussion sessions, Q&As ...

And there's a lot more lay involvement than outsiders might think.

The Orthodox Church claims to be pneumatic, of course, and would argue that it has never ceased to be charismatic in the true sense of the term. But the mileage seems to vary as to what extent they would regard the authenticity of spiritual gifts and 'workings' outside the parameters of the Orthodox Church herself. Some clearly took a harder line on this than others, although they would all acknowledge that God the Holy Spirit does work within all Christian traditions and indeed beyond the faith and out in the world. Certainly, the former Protestant and Catholic charismatics I met at the conference all had stories to tell, whether from Brazilian favellas or ordinary parishes in the North of England, of things they still considered to be genuine and extraordinary workings of the Holy Spirit. Although, like me, they were very sceptical of many contemporary claims.

High spots? Well, meeting the Belfast contingent was one of them. I warmed to them and their unfeasibly young priest straight away. 'Och, it's grand being Orthodox so it is. As we're neither Cat'olic nor Protestant, so we aren't, we've got something different tae offer tae both sides of the communidee ..'

It was one of the Belfast bunch who gave me one of the best laughs of the day (and there were a few). I was relating the story about my Baptist minister friend to one of the delegates as we stood side by side in the urinals (as you do).

When I ended with the quote, 'It's the Church, stupid,' the Belfast deacon emerged from the loo cubicle in his black cassock and funny hat. 'How's that? It's the stupid Church?' he quipped.

For me, though, the high spot must have been the pregnant stillness as the faithful gathered in the gloom of the conference centre chapel for Vespers. A silence so tangible you could have stacked it on top of itself. Andrew Walker, the Orthodox sociologist and honorary Anglican canon-theologian, once wrote that he considered the Orthodox silence as the missing note in Western worship. There may be echoes of it among the Quakers, perhaps, who knows? It's not an empty silence, it's a reverent silence full of expectation.

We say a lot. But there are times when there is nothing that can be said.