Taking the plunge

OK – I’m experimenting – and I’ve finally updated to Blogger layouts. This means that a) my old commenting system is dormant and invisible; I’ve still got access to it but nobody else has. Not sure how much of a problem this is;
b) all my old sidebar has gone. Don’t know if that was of any use to anybody but I quite liked having all my links etc there. I might see if there is an easy way to include parts of it in this new format.

What I’m now going to try and do is work out how to stop twitter from publishing my blogposts automatically. Trouble is, I can’t remember how I set that up….

Movie notes

My Best Friend’s Girl 3/5 fine
Over her dead body 3/5 ditto
Max Payne 3/5 stylish but empty and it got more annoying as time went on
30 Days of Night 3.5/5 pretty effective, marred slightly by the stupid decision of the lead character at the end
Mirrors 3.5/5 some good elements but yet another really annoying and misanthropic ending. Might write something longer about this trend of hatefulness.
Surveillance 3/5 Well made but morally bankrupt, bordering on the outright evil. I must be getting more grumpy in my old age

High Concept (Charles Fleming)

This is a very bad book. Quite possibly the worst book I’ve read in the last ten years. The author had an interesting idea – explore the notorious life of Don Simpson and use Simpson as the lens through which to focus on the corrupt nature of Hollywood – but there is so much name dropping, and filler extracted from magazine articles, that the image presented is irrevocably blurred.

How about this for a sentence: “The Hollywood that Simpson left behind was provincial, incestuous and almost hermeneutic in its isolation from the outside world and ordinary human reality.” Now I think that Fleming meant ‘hermetic’ in that sentence, which would seem to fit, but his writing is so sloppy (and badly edited) that I simply cannot be sure he wasn’t genuinely thinking of ‘hermeneutic’ and just got the rest of the sentence mangled.

Some eye-popping details, but not recommened. Read a long review instead.

A technical note (Firefox / Sage)

Just to say that my version of Firefox has started to display some very odd symptoms and quirks, not the least of which is that the SageToo addon that I use to read blogs has vanished from the surface (eg browser bar). The ‘innards’ are still there, eg the list of bookmarks, which I’m currently using, imperfectly, to keep up with what I read but it is all very annoying. I’m pretty sure that the problem is that the version of Firefox I have (the latest) is not compatible with some of the older add-ons – and I don’t want to uninstall this version, reinstalling an earlier one, because I will lose the RSS feeds that I have accumulated!

I’m exploring the GoogleReader system, which has some advantages, but isn’t as good as Sage. Ho hum.

Haiti and suffering

This is what I would have preached this morning, if I had been well enough to get there! Essentially the same as something I preached following the tsunami five years ago.
At my Bible Group on Friday afternoon the question came up about the suffering in Haiti: how can God let such things happen? It now looks as if some 200,000 people will have lost their lives in the disaster. But the scale of this disaster doesn’t really affect the underlying question. I think that Fyodor Dostoyevsky framed the question well in the nineteenth century, when, in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, he has one character say that there is nothing which can justify the suffering of one innocent child. I think that is right. There is no greater tragedy than that which can happen to one person, to one family. What happened in Haiti is not a greater challenge to belief in a good God than a beloved child getting cancer, for example.

Formally the problem looks like this – we have four statements:

P1: God is omniscient – he knows everything

P2: God is omnipotent – he can do anything

P3: God does not desire suffering – he is good

P4: There is suffering

It is incoherent to assert all of P1 – P4.

Now, as you might imagine, there are lots of ways in which religious people have responded to the problem, most of which take the form of denying one or more of P1-P4. I have some sympathies with all of those, in other words, I think that all of P1-P4 are complex truths which need to be broken down, and that much of the immediate force of the problem is lessened when they are broken down. But I don’t think that this answers the real force behind the question, which I think is much more direct and relevant than most philosophical questions. As I see it the problem of evil is much more about how to live in the face of suffering, rather than being an intellectual nut to crack. When you are faced with trauma, all the philosophy in the world means nothing.

Some years ago I took the funeral of a 33 year old man who had died in tragic and unclear circumstances. There was some suggestion that drugs were involved, but there were no clear answers. In talking to the parents, the father talked about how he had built a swimming pool in the garden for his son to play in, but that now his son was dead, he said “was it worth it?” In other words, the real problem of evil is one about the meaning of the suffering that we experience. In my ministry so far, I’ve discovered that those who can place some sort of interpretation on what they experience are far better able to cope with tragedy than those without some sort of guiding framework; in particular, those who lack any sort of religious faith can be totally overwhelmed by an experience such as this.

I think when any of us are faced with an overwhelming experience of suffering, there is a profound existential choice that is made – and all of the religious and philosophical arguments only come in to play after that choice has been made. The choice is about whether life is meaningful or not, and it is that choice which generates the various resources needed in order to live. In other words, when the problem of evil becomes one that is of vital importance to resolve – because life has just whacked you over the head with something awful – then you are forced into determining your own attitude.

If you resolve that life is meaningful, then you carry on building your life around whatever it is that you value, and you say that those things which you value are sustainable in the face of evidence to the contrary (the suffering, the logical problems etc). And I would say that as soon as you start to talk about those things which you value in this context, you are inescapably resorting to religious language. ‘To believe in God IS to see that life has meaning’ (Wittgenstein)

If, on the other hand, you resolve that life isn’t meaningful then – I would argue – something essential for a good life is taken away, and you are left with suicide in various different forms, some of which don’t immediately lead to a physical death. And religious language is meaningless.

For me, when I am faced with the logical arguments about the problem of evil (much the strongest arguments against the existence of a loving creator) I am content for there to be an irreducible element of mystery about it, and to say that although I can’t answer the problem now to my own intellectual satisfaction, I believe that there is an answer. This is because I see the alternative as unliveable – I could not raise a family, and enjoy that raising, if I didn’t experience it as ‘worth it’, whatever the future might hold for me or for them. In other words, my answer to the problem is a choice about how I live, not a belief that I hold in my mind.

And the way in which I think about this issue is through the language of cross and resurrection. The cross represents the way of this world, and the nature of our suffering. And the resurrection represents our hope that one day it will make sense. For in Christ we have received a promise, a promise of eternal life for all who turn to Him. When we are confronted with pain that we don’t understand, when we feel cheated by life, we still have a choice. We can say that life is meaningless, that it doesn’t make sense, and reject what God has given to us. But if we do that, we never move away from the cross, and we never get to Easter morning. For the alternative is to say, although I don’t understand how this can make sense, I trust that God is in charge, that He loves us, and that nothing and no-one who is truly loved is ever lost. That somehow our brokenness will find a place in God’s design. That is our hope, that is our faith, that is the God in whom we put our trust. May God guide us all through the valley of the shadow of death, and may his goodness and mercy cover us all today and for ever more. Amen.

Deprivation and clergy deployment

This is just to articulate something that is bugging me a little.

In our Deanery there is a transfer of funds to support clergy deployment in areas of social deprivation. This might seem innocuous – praiseworthy even – but the more I think about it, the less I think it makes sense as a general rule (I happen to support the present divvying-up in our Deanery but on other grounds).

Consider: the argument is that a poorer area is more in need of support from the church, therefore clergy provision to such an area is subsidised by other parishes.

If this was talking about social and economic matters then I would have no argument. Economic deprivation leads to economic support – yes, like for like, the strong helping the weak and so on.

Yet that is not what is being followed. Instead we have social and economic deprivation being met with the provision of increased spiritual resources. The assumption being (I guess) that areas of social and economic deprivation are also spiritually deprived and in need of more spiritual support.

This is what I don’t believe to be true.

First off, just from my own experience, working in the East End was very much more straightforward spiritually than in supposedly wealthier rural Essex. As I see it, people in harsher contexts have less grounds for illusion; being less under illusion they are more open to the truth of the gospel. It is the educated and relatively wealthy middle class who have the greatest barriers to spiritual growth as they are able to preserve an illusion of independence for longer.

Secondly, and more importantly, I think it goes against what Jesus taught. He said that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom.

It seems to me that the church should be addressing itself to areas of spiritual deprivation when considering the deployment of its spiritual resources. There is just the faintest whiff of this being yet another example where the church has become captured by a secular agenda.

Clergy pensions and the dangers of conventional thinking‬‪ ‬‪

This is a guest post by Paul Lee, a senior professional in the Pensions industry and active church member. He is writing in a personal capacity.

The Church of England is facing some key and very difficult decisions. Its relatively new pension fund, the CofE Funded Pensions Scheme, which was only set up in 1998 following previous investment problems, has developed a significant deficit — its liabilities to pay pensions in the future (estimated at £813 million) far exceed the assets it has available (£461 million) — and, like many other organisations in this country, the Church is faced with the challenge of trying to fill this deficit and fulfil its obligations to the clergy, its future pensioners.‬‪ ‬‪

In significant part, this deficit has arisen through following conventional thinking: after taking advice, the scheme put all of its assets in shares, then conventionally seen as the best place for long-term investments such as these. The turmoil of recent markets — in 2000/01 as much as in the most recent couple of years — has exposed the risks embedded in that conventional thinking. There has also been increasing realisation in recent years of the impact of the increasing life expectancy‬‪, which has boosted the assessed liabilities of the scheme. ‬‪

The Church recently closed its public consultation on changes to clergy pensions to limit the liabilities which the fund and the Church itself faces. The Task Group on Clergy Pensions proposed some limited housekeeping changes which will have a useful impact on the apparent deficit. Increasing the retirement age to 68 and the expected period of service to qualify for a full pension to 43 years, and reducing the inflation protection in the scheme will cause some personal pain to individual clergy but this pain is perhaps outweighed by the overall benefit for the scheme and the financial position of the Church and its parishioners.‬‪ ‬‪

There are, however, some much more radical steps which the Task Group considered, in particular moving away from a so-called defined benefit scheme to a defined contribution one, either in whole or in part. Defined benefit (DB) schemes are also often known as final salary schemes and guarantee a portion of (usually the final year’s) salary will be paid as the pension; defined contribution (DC) schemes invest the money collected each year and each individual’s pension pot is determined by the investment performance of this money over their working life. In effect, in DB schemes the pension is guaranteed and is mathematically fixed depending on the salary and the years of service; in DC schemes nothing is guaranteed apart from the contributions. The investment risk is taken by each individual rather than by the scheme and the employer.‬‪ ‬‪

This looks like conventional thinking again: many companies have already switched from DB pension schemes to DC ones. They have felt themselves pushed to do so because of new accounting rules which have made clear the scale of their deficits as pension beneficiaries have been living longer, and because of the nervousness of their investors about the scale of those deficits. But the Church should not be prey to these short-term pressures; we as a church do not have the inherent instability built into our structure seen in the corporate construct. We should have confidence that we are sustainable and can afford the burdens we are currently facing; while they currently look severe they should diminish over time (the current projections assume filling the deficit over a period of a few years, not over the lifetime of the scheme).‬‪ ‬‪

I personally am clear that a DC structure for clergy pensions would be wholly inappropriate. The Task Group’s consultation contains a key sentence: “A wholesale transfer of risk is inevitably a more sensitive subject in relation to a group of people who, during their working lives, are paid only around £20,000 per annum and are expected to house themselves in retirement after many years of living in tied housing.”‬

I believe that this understates the case. It is not only more sensitive, it is inappropriate to transfer risk to this group of people. While the Task Group is right to state in defence of DC schemes that ‘there is no general reason why they should provide lower pensions than DB schemes, but they have gained bad media coverage because many employers have also taken the opportunity to cut contributions’, this is not the whole story. A key difference with DC schemes is that they introduce an element of lottery: one cadre of clergy would benefit disproportionately from positive financial market performance over the lifetime of their DC investment, and one cadre would suffer when the market performance over their lifetimes was less favourable. This differential treatment of clergy simply through the luck of when their investing lifetimes fall seems wholly inappropriate to me. It does not reflect the caring and nurturing organisation that the Church is, but rather introduces an unwholesome element of blind chance into the process.

Not least as a contributing parishioner I hope that performance in the scheme improves but I also hope that the Church has the confidence not to be prey to every element of conventional thinking going forwards. The Church is there to nurture the faith among its community; in order to do this it needs to nurture its clergy and care for their long-term well-being. Providing appropriate pension coverage is an important part of this.