On The Big Questions: Church buildings and drones

I’m pleased to report that I’ll be on The Big Questions on BBC1 at 10.00am tomorrow (Sunday 12th March).

They have three debates per episode. I’ve been asked on to talk about church buildings (in the light of the potential closure of Guildford Cathedral). However, they’ve also asked me to join in on another topic: the ethics of drones.

My main job now is working for the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), a pacifist network that includes people of many religions and none. Tomorrow, I’ll largely be speaking in a personal capacity, particularly when it comes to church buildings. Of course the topic of drones is very relevant to my work at the PPU (although I’m coming from a Christian pacifist position, the PPU includes many other sorts of pacifists as well).

I’ll be back here in the next few days with some thoughts about the programme. If you want to tweet while watching it, I believe the hashtag is #BBCbq. You can link to me on Twitter at @SymonHill or the PPU at @PPUtoday. Your comments on the issues are also welcome below. Thanks!



Sexuality and the church: Let’s stop listening to bishops

I’m disappointed but not remotely surprised that the Church of England bishops’ latest two-year consultation process on sexuality (which followed their previous two-year consultation process on sexuality) has resulted in a recommendation to keep things exactly the same, except for some very small changes that will be kept as slight as possible so that nobody will notice.
The report’s feeble attempt at talking of welcoming LGBT+ people is revealed for what it is in the use of the phrase “gay and lesbian” to mean people attracted to people of their own gender. Once again, the existence of bisexuals is forgotten. Not that it’s much better for gay and lesbian people.
I don’t want any more consultation processes on sexuality from the Church of England. I won’t support them, co-operate with them or be part of the consultation. While we wait for yet more phoney consultation, yet more LGBT+ people will be denied an equal place in the body of Christ. More people will lose faith, give up, hate themselves or kill themselves. And the Gospel of Christ’s love will be denied and law will be promoted over grace.
Some of the bishops will talk about how painful it was to reach these conclusions, how they wrestled with their decisions and how hard it is to have to deal with competing expectations. I’m sure there’s some truth in this, but after so many pointless processes and delaying tactics, my patience with these sort of comments is rapidly deteriorating. I’ve nothing against the bishops, I just don’t think we should allow them the authority to make decisions like this.
We don’t need church leaders to tell us what we may and may not do when we worship God. We don’t need them to tell us how far we can follow the Spirit’s leadings or how we should read and interpret the Bible. We can do these things ourselves, with support from each other and with guidance from the Holy Spirit. Of course we get it wrong, we will often get it wrong, but there’s no reason to believe that church leaders committed to hierachy and homophobia will be more likely to get it right.
Let’s get on with it.

Do the anti-strike commentators believe in magic?

Certain middle class commentators seem to have a sizeable sense of entitlement as they direct their anger at the drivers and guards striking against their treatment by Southern Railways.

If you’re a passenger who supports the strike, or at least appreciates the complexity of the issues, you are not the one who is likely to get quoted in the right-wing media. You’re more likely to be heard if you say something like, “Because of the strikers, I’m going to be two hours late for work!”.

I wonder how these people imagine they get to work normally. Do they think that the trains magically glide along without the effort of the very same people who they are now attacking for striking?

Some angrily blame strikers for making them late. When there are no strikes on, I doubt that many of these people put the same energy into thanking the same workers for getting them to their destinations on time.

Similarly, those who blame postal workers for striking should be taken seriously only if, on every other day, they thank postal workers for delivering the post.

Sadly, some people from privileged backgrounds don’t seem to notice that the world works for them only because of other people’s work. Trains move because people drive them. Public toilets are clean because people clean them. They can buy things in shops because people serve them. Their children can go to school because people teach them.

Some workers only get noticed when they stop doing the work for which they are so rarely thanked on every other day.

If workers’ concerns are noticed only when they are striking, then it’s hardly suprising that they choose to do so.

Of course, it’s not just the rich who sometimes display these attitudes. In an atomised society that promotes “independence”, we can easily forget that we are all dependent on each other. I cannot drink a cup of tea without relying on the thousands of people who have picked the tea, packaged it, transported it and sold it, the people who made the mug I’m drinking from and the equally large number of people involved in producing and selling the milk and sugar.

Many commuters affected by the strikes earn less than the staff who are striking – because they don’t have the strong unions that rail workers maintain to promote their concerns.

If, like me, you spend large parts of your life travelling by train in Britain, then you’ve probably spent many hours despairing of delayed trains or getting anxious as you stand crammed in crowded carriages.

You’ve probably not found someone from the Daily Telegraph popping up to get a quote from you about how stressful and inconvenient this is. Unless, of course, this situation arose during a strike, when right-wing journalists trip over each other to gather stories of the “misery” that they can blame on the unions.

The government and their allies allege that these strikes are political. They are right. Putting safety before profit – by keeping guards on trains – is a political position. Suggesting that disabled passengers should have equal access to transport – which is helped by having guards on trains – is political. It is political to ask people to cope with inconvenience so that they can support each other in taking action that protects each others’ needs. These are all political positions that I am happy to hold and to promote.

Yes, the strikes are political. Everything’s political – including safety, access and mutual support.

High food bank use is “fantastic” says preacher at Tory conference service

Fifty years ago today, peace protesters disrupted a Labour Party conference church service as pro-war politicians read out Bible passages about peace.

Sitting in the Conservative Party conference church service this evening, I started to think that the greatest thing I would be likely to protest about was an excess of blandness.

Until, that is, the preacher neared the end of his sermon. Andrew Davies is a Pentecostal minister, a Conservative Party member and a theologian at Birmingham University. In a sermon about Christian engagement in society, he eventually came to talk about the work of Christian charities.

He pointed out that the Trussell Trust had given out 1,109,309 emergency food parcels in 2015-16. This figure was displayed on a PowerPoint slide projected at an enormous size on the wall behind him. He then quoted the figure that the Cinnamon Network (a far more right-wing group than the Trussell Trust) had supposedly contributed to the British economy.

After these examples of Christian service, he said:

“Isn’t that fantastic?”

I sat up in my seat, feeling slightly sick. No, Andrew, it isn’t fantastic. It’s outrageous. It’s disgusting that anybody needs an emergency food parcel, let alone over a million people in one of the richest countries in the world.

It is one thing to praise charities for helping people who have been thrown into poverty. It is another thing to do so after causing the poverty in question.

Tory policies have caused the rise in food poverty. Praising those who alleviate it is like beating someone up and then saying that the person who gave them first aid has done a great job.

Earlier, I had stood outside the church with other members of Christians for Economic Justice (CEJ) as the Conservative conference delegates arrived at the service. We had handed out leaflets pointing out the contrast between Jesus’ example of siding with the poor and Tory support for the interests of the wealthy.

The leaflets – drafted by my friend Nicola Sleapwood, a Christian disability activist living in Birmingham – pointed out that the number of Trussell Trust food parcels in 2015-16 was more than eighteen times higher than in 2010-11. The same figure – 1,109,309 – was given.

Yet less than an hour later I sat in the service, saw this number flashed up on the screen and heard this situation described as “fantastic”.

The service was organised by the Conservative Christian Fellowship. There were some parts it that I would have readily agreed with – were it not for the implication that the views and values expressed were compatible with support for the Conservative Party. Andrew Davies deserves some credit for going out of his way to distinguish Christendom from the Kingdom of God.

Prior to that, there was a lot of vague and shallow talk about the importance of engaging with society and politics. Throughout the service, “politics” was taken to mean the narrow world of Westminster and Whitehall politics. To be fair, Caroline Spellman said, “Life is politics”. But she then went onto to talk of people “going into politics”. In reality, we are all “in politics” simply by being living human beings who are part of communities and societies.

A video was shown by the charity Global Vision, drawing attention to the horror of violence against girls and women around the world. The Tory delegates, whose party’s cuts have closed down rape crisis centres, applauded and nodded their approval.

I am not for a minute claiming to be a better Christian than any of the Tories there. I will have to answer to God as much as they will. I am frequently selfish, I often fail to love my neighbour and I am complicit in all sorts of injustices in the society in which I live.

However, I do maintain that solidarity with the poor and marginalised is not incidental to Jesus’ message but runs unavoidably through it. To seek to follow Jesus without recognising this is to build a house on sand.

Many of the people at the service were friendly, polite and – I’m sure – compassionate. I dare say they care for their families and friends. They may volunteer for charities and pray about the world’s problems. But if we are to follow the encouragement to engage in politics, we cannot have one set of values in everyday life and another in the polling station.

I am sometimes asked, “Can a Christian be a Conservative?”. Of course a Christian can be a Conservative. The question is whether they should be. However well-meaning individual Tory Christians may be, the Tory Party as a whole works to protect the interests of the super-rich. It has been doing so very well for 300 years.

The Conservative Party is for the rich in the same way that a potato peeler is for peeling potatoes. You can try to use it for something else, but it very rarely works.

Enemies become human in Royal Court production

It’s rare for me to give a standing ovation in a theatre. But on Wednesday I readily rose from my seat in the Royal Court Theatre to applaud six ex-soldiers from two sides of the same war. Despite the rawness of their memories, they had spent three months putting together a play to explore their experiences.

The Falklands War finished 34 years ago this month and all six veterans are now in their fifties. But we were left in no doubt of the deep impact that this brief but deadly episode had exercised in their lives.

The play – entitled Minefield  – could have been dry and worthy, but the six combined humour, anger and grief as they used a mixture of storytelling, drama, film and puppetry to impressive effect. The project was conceived and directed by Lola Arias.

The comedy was present from the start. One of the Argentines, Ruben Otero, explained that he was in a Beatles tribute band and sings in English. “Do you dress up as the Beatles?” asked one of the others. “No, I wear a T-shirt saying ‘The Malvinas are Argentine’.”

The humour was accompanied by intense and moving portrayals of pain and mourning. Otero was a survivor of the General Belgrano, the ship sunk by British forces, which accounted for around half the Argentine casualties in the war. He narrated his experience with a passion that showed no sign of being an act. At a dramatic moment, the light switched to a British veteran, Lou Armour, who said, “We were pleased when we heard the General Belgrano had been sunk. We didn’t care that it was travelling away from the islands.”

Thankfully, there was no pretence that the process of making the play had been easy. None of them spoke each other’s language fluently (the Argentines’ contributions were in Spanish with English surtitles). Some had buried their memories of the war for years until applying to be in the play. Others had become obsessed by them. One had previously taken to drugs and alcoholism to deal with his trauma while another spoke of his experience of therapy.

The play was of course only a snapshot, only a window into the events and emotions that had shaped six men’s lives. Although we heard extracts of speeches by Thatcher and Galtieri, there was little said about the wider political context. There was certainly no sign of the peace activists in both Argentina and the UK who campaigned against the war.

This of course was the point. An insight into the personal impact of war can be so much more powerful than a dry description or academic analysis of it.

The six veterans included three from each side. All there Argentines had been young conscripts, though one had been discharged by the time the war began and had volunteered to re-join the army when it broke out. Two of the British veterans had joined up at sixteen, one of them finding a “family” in the Marines that he had not found at home. For me, this was a a reminder of how the armed forces take advantage of loneliness and a lack of community, using them as recruiting tools. The other British veteran, Sukrim Rai, was a Gurkha from Nepal.

Headlines from Argentine newspapers flashed up, describing the Gurkhas as “mercenary killers”. Argentine soldiers heard rumours that Gurkhas cut the ears from their victims and ate them. One Argentine veteran, Marcelo Vallejo, explained that for years after the war he had wanted to kill a Gurkha personally. Now he sat opposite Sukrim Rai on stage and said he would prefer to go for a beer with him.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to think that all was forgotten and forgiven. The veterans focused on experiences and emotions. None spoke explicitly about their views on the rightness or wrongness of the war, but it was clear that there were mixed views among both the British and Argentine veterans.

In one scene, the six shouted accusations at each other about the behaviour of each other’s forces. It was not clear to what extent they were acting, but the arguments made by at least some of them were undoubtedly heartfelt. I doubt I was the only audience member left with the thought that both British and Argentine authorities had behaved appallingly.

In my eyes, the one shortcoming of the show was its failure to explore the participants’ political views more explicitly. Given the bravery involved in the play’s production and performance, it would surely have been possible to explore the veterans’ opinions as part of the production.

But perhaps that’s easy for me to say. These veterans had already done something remarkable. This production is more a work of poetry than a piece of historical analysis, but it is no less powerful for that. Reconciliation is a messy business. Anyone who dares to treat an “enemy” as a human being is taking a step towards it.

100 years on, pacifism is just as important

Regular readers of my blog (a small but much appreciated group of people!) will know that I’ve been writing for a while about the peace movement during World War One.

It’s 100 years ago this year since conscription was introduced in Britain. I had intended to blog about resistance to conscription on every date that marked a significant centenary. Pressure of work and occasional health problems have meant that I’ve not kept up with this aim as well as I would have liked, but I believe the reasons for remembering the peace activists of the first world war are as strong as ever.

In December, I blogged about how the cabinet had decided in December 1915 to introduce conscription, a decision with caused the Home Secretary, John Simon, to resign in protest.

On 27th January, I blogged about the passing of the Military Service Act by Parliament on that date in 1916. This was the law that conscripted all unmarried men aged 18-41 in England, Scotland and Wales. It listed only a few exemptions, including people with a “conscientious objection”. This was not defined and in practice, rarely observed.

On 2nd March 1916, conscription came into force. I’m sorry I did not blog about this on 2nd March this year, but I’m glad there was a fair bit of coverage around.

One reason for my limited blogging in recent weeks is that I have begun a new job. I have taken up the role of Co-ordinator of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), one of Britain’s oldest pacifist networks, founded as a union of people who have pledged to oppose war.

White poppies

I am delighted to work at the PPU, an organisation that has been resisting war since many decades before I was born. I am honoured to be part of many things that the PPU has been working on for years, and to have the opportunity to work in building on them and developing the PPU’s work and external communication.

This doesn’t mean that I will stop blogging! I will still be blogging here, and writing elsewhere, although such writing is of course an expression of my own views rather than those of the PPU as a whole.

If you would like to keep up with anniversaries relating to the peace movement of World War One – as well as vital issues of war and peace today – you can follow the PPU on Twitter at @PPUtoday.

Thankfully, in Britain we are no longer physically conscripted to fight. Around the world, however, many people still are and they need our support. In the UK armed forces, those who develop a conscientious objection after signing up are in practice often denied the chance to leave and many are unaware that they have a legal right to do so.

Also, while our bodies are not conscripted, our minds are. We internalise hateful doctrines that present violence as the only solution to conflict, dehumanise our enemies and encourage us to view unquestioning obedience as a virtue rather than an abomination. Our money is conscripted to fund the world’s fifth highest military budget. Even our language is conscripted, so we unconsciously talk about “defence” when we mean war and refer to the UK government’s armed forces as “our” troops.

A hundred years ago, conscientious objectors were going to prison in their thousands. Today, pacifist resistance to militarism is as important as ever.