In defence of the debates

Confession: I watched _almost_ every minute of the leadership debates, the exception being the first ten minutes of the second as I had set my Sky+ incorrectly! I found them to be very useful and, with minor caveats – like how useless the first two moderators were – I think they are a significant step forward for democracy in the UK. Why do I say this? How in particular to respond to the idea that they represent a regression, a capitulation to celebrity culture?

Well, in brief, we get a very great deal of information through non-verbal communication, and that information is relevant to our decision making, including the decision as to who we wish to be our leaders. We cannot escape displaying our identity when people see us react in difficult circumstances – and it seems perfectly sensible to make a voting decision based upon that identity.

The idea that policy must be placed above personality privileges a particular way of understanding politics – dare I say the anointed way? – and is one of the pernicious products of the idolatry of rationalism in our society. (Too many p’s in that sentence!) Of course, the blowback against that idolatry has its downside, but I don’t think watching 4.5 hours of debate between party leaders counts as a symptom of not taking matters seriously – and the uptick in voter registration tends to support that. The debates have engaged people in the political process, and that is surely healthy.

Some of those limits to ministry

Following his sabbatical Tom Wright feels it impossible to combine academic study and being a Bishop – perfectly understandable – and gives priority to what is most important (ie his vocation).

Nakedpastor steps down from his post – perfectly understandable given his reasons – and gives priority to what is most important (ie his vocation).


However good our new Bishop’s book is, I don’t think it gets down to the roots of these sorts of problems.

Of Ministers and Musicians

A colleague picked this up at a Diocesan training day, but I haven’t been able to find it on the web. I thought it was worth sharing more widely.

The Minister’s perspective:

PULLING TOGETHER: I want to know that you are fully behind me, that we share the same vision. I’ve heard of many situations where the musicians have been a major impediment to the growth and life of the church. They’ve developed their own empire. When the rest of the church has wanted to move forward, they’ve dug their heels in or even split the church.

LOYALTY: As leader, I expect your loyalty and respect towards the leadership team. I am legally responsible for the church and nothing can change that at the moment. The decisions I make with the leadership team are made for the good of the whole church. Some things you may not approve of, but please don’t be tempted to gossip or foment rebellion in the camp. The musicians are a powerful force within the church and if they begin to pull in a different direction it can be devastating.

TEACHABILITY: I want to be able to ‘speak into’ your ministry – to make suggestions and comments about the way things are done so that it matches the whole thrust of a service or the worship in general. I’d like to be able to suggest certain hymns and songs without feeling that you disdain my comments. I’m not particularly musical but my opinions deserve a hearing.

SERVANT SPIRIT: Servanthood is an important qualification for ministry. Whatever gift we have, it must be used to serve others in the body of Christ. I wish to serve you and help release your full potential in terms of personal growth and ministry. I expect you to have a similar attitude to me, so that together we will be able to serve and build up the body of Christ here in its worship and mission.

MUSICAL BREADTH: I want to emphasise the need for musical diversity within the church. We are from many backgrounds and age groups. We have many different needs in worship, therefore we need a similar diversity within music for worship. While I know you value certain styles of music above others, please don’t dismiss other preferences if different from your own. If you rubbish the style, you can rubbish the person too.

KEEPING UP TO DATE: I expect you to keep abreast of the wider worship scene, and to ensure that the congregation is introduced to that music which the wider body of Christ is finding relevant. I don’t want our church to be cut off from the mainstream but I’d like to maintain some quality too. I want us to develop our own distinct musical repertoire which reflects our needs, our priorities.

APPRECIATING MY PERSPECTIVE: Please realise that I have to keep an overview of everything. What you see as the most important priority at the moment may not be so for someone else standing in another position. Please trust me in the decisions I make.

BE A MODEL: I acknowledge the tremendous gift and potential for music in worship. You and the whole music ministry can be come a model and inspiration to the congregation – an embodiment of worship, a sample of what the body of Christ can be.

The musician’s perspective:

AN OVERALL PERSPECTIVE: I need you, as leader, to hold the wider vision open for me. I can easily get so preoccupied with the music and worship scene that I forget that it is just one area of ministry. If you and the other leaders are clear about the overall vision, direction and emphasis of our church, then I can develop music and worship styles which reflect and serve it.

VISION: If the leader hasn’t a clear sense of direction, how can anyone follow? I believe your role is to guard the vision God has given for our church. Other service gifts like music can then fit into the context. For example, a church with a strong evangelistic calling might have music which emphasises that commitment.

MUSIC CAN’T DO EVERYTHING: I don’t appreciate it when people expect music to glue the whole thing together. Effective worship has much wider implications. For the music ministry to function properly, I rely on the whole body of Christ being well formed and nurtured. Music may reflect a healthy body, but it can never be a substitute for it. Don’t force on me the whole responsibility for making worship happen within the congregation.

VULNERABILITY: Leaders operate most effectively out of weakness – that is, the acknowledgement that without God they can do nothing. That doesn’t mean leaders should be inept, indecisive weaklings. It means they should have a vulnerability to God and to others, a softness of character which God has effected through life’s experiences. People identify with weakness: it allows others in so that sharing and bonding may happen.

EARN MY RESPECT: I will submit to your leadership, but I’d rather do it out of respect than out of obligation. You will earn my respect particularly by admitting that you don’t have all the answers and by your willingness to acknowledge mistakes. When I summon up the courage to confront you over an issue about which I feel deeply, I hope that you won’t be dismissive. Don’t let feelings of insecurity put you on the defensive and prevent you from listening to me. I hope that you would do the same for me – I want to grow as a person and as a disciple too.

FACILITATING: Many of us within the church have very specific gifts. As the overall leader I look to you for the ability to facilitate them and allow our ministries to flourish for the good of the whole. We don’t expect you to be gifted in every direction, but to provide continuity and oversight, a covering under which we can operate.

Gordon Brown, smeared and anointed

Although I disagree with most of his policies, I do think Gordon Brown is a good person. Most particularly I think he was most effective in the TV debates when he was talking about taking steps to alleviate poverty. I have no doubt that his commitment to social justice is genuine, heartfelt and commendable.

I was pondering that when thinking about the smearing he had to endure yesterday, as a result of his rude comments about Mrs Duffy. First off, let’s acknowledge that much of the drive to smear him comes from a Murdoch-driven agenda to get the Conservatives into power and thereby reduce the power of the BBC (something I very much oppose). Having said that, I do think that the episode reveals something of the mental framework of our governing class which is worth bringing into the light.

Rather similar to Obama’s comments about ‘clinging to guns and religion’ what the comment reveals is a commitment to the ‘vision of the anointed’, ie that the governing class has a better, more elevated understanding of the needs and priorities facing a country than do the ordinary people who live in the country. There is then an inevitable process of perception management (spin) to try and disguise the tension generated by seeking the approval and votes of people with whom you disagree. Occasionally the mask slips.

In contrast to this, for all sorts of theological and practical reasons, I think the most essential task is to return power to the local level so far as possible, in order to encourage people to take responsibility for their own lives. In their different ways, LibDems, Greens and Conservatives are all pursuing that objective. I hope that, whatever the actual outcome, there will be a reversal of the centralisation of power that has proceeded under both styles of government for the last few generations.

Are humans smarter than yeast?

Imagine the classic scientist’s petri dish, in which is growing a culture of yeast. Some sugar is introduced into the dish, and the yeast thinks ‘food!’ – so the yeast population expands as it gorges on the sugar. Sadly, there are bounds to the petri dish, and the amount of sugar is limited. The yeast population expands rapidly, bumps into the limits to growth, and then collapses. For the yeast, think of human population; for the sugar, think of fossil fuels; for the boundaries of the petri dish, think of the earth. Put simply, the problem faced by the yeast, and the problem faced by the human community on earth, is the same – exponential growth cannot continue for ever in a finite space. Human society is facing a similar situation, and the only question is – can we do better than the yeast?

Exponential growth occurs whenever something grows at a constant rate – for example, an economy that is growing at 5% a year. So if we begin with 100 widgets of production, and our production grows by 5% then after 1 year we will have 105 widgets. If the growth continues then after another year we will have 110.25 widgets. After another year we will have 115.7625 widgets. Notice that the amount added on increases each time – 5 widgets in the first year, 5 and a quarter in the second year, five and a half in the third year. That is because the underlying quantity has increased. So exponential growth is not simply adding on a fixed amount each year, it is adding on an increasing amount each year.

The interesting thing about exponential growth, and what makes it so marvellous and miraculous and devastating, is something called ‘doubling time’. When a certain percentage of growth is maintained over time then we can expect the underlying quantity to double at a particular rate. For example, if growth is maintained at 7.5% a year then the underlying quantity will double (approximately) every ten years. Which brings us to the famous tale of the chessboard and the king. The tale goes – and it is entirely apocryphal so it has been told many ways – that a great inventor gave the king a chess set. The king was greatly pleased with the gift and asked the inventor what he would like as a reward. The inventor asked that a grain of rice be placed on the first square, two grains of rice on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth and so on round all the 64 squares of the chessboard, doubling each time, and that he be given the total quantity of rice that would end up on the board. The king readily agreed and asked his treasurer to dispense the rice. After taking some time to work out how much this would be, the treasurer told the king that it amounted to more rice than was available in the whole world – at which point the king decided the inventor was more trouble than he was worth and had his head chopped off.

When a population embarks upon exponential growth in response to a sudden abundance of food ecologists call it ‘overshoot’. In a situation of temporary abundance (the food supply for the yeast) there is a short period of exponential growth leading to a population explosion (lots more yeast); once the temporary abundance has been exhausted then there is a crash while the system returns to an equilibrium (a very small part of the yeast population survives). The human population of the earth has been growing exponentially, and the numbers have exploded through the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. However, just as with the yeast, exponential growth cannot go on forever and it will come to an end.

This is not a new insight. It was first popularised through work sponsored by the Club of Rome in the early 1970’s and published as ‘The Limits to Growth’. This was a work that was more misunderstood and maligned than actually read and considered. However, time has shown the essential insights of that report to be correct. The conclusion of the report was that, if nothing was done to amend the path that our culture had embarked upon then, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, our economy would start to hit the ecological resource limits and further growth would be prevented. In other words, around about now.

The best way to understand this is to think about physical economic growth as a cancer. Just as a tumour is a part of a body which is growing rapidly, without any regard to the health of the wider organism, so too is exponential growth of our physical economy something which will destroy the wider human and planetary ecology on which it depends. If we continue to pursue economic growth at all costs, then a fate very much like that of the yeast in the petri dish awaits us. Can we do better than the yeast? (Something to ponder at this time of a general election, when politicians promises to restore “growth”).

To my mind, the predicament we face is not a practical problem requiring practical solutions, but a challenge to our values. We need to work out what it is that we really want to preserve in our society, and what we are prepared to do without. This is an essentially spiritual task. More on that in the next issue.

Something I need engraved on my brain

“Do you worship the work?

… A great number of Christian workers worship their work. The only concern of Christian workers should be their concentration on God… A worker who lacks this serious controlling emphasis of concentration on God is apt to become overly burdened by his work. He is a slave to his own limits, having no freedom of his body, mind or spirit. Consequently he becomes burned out and defeated. There is no freedom and no delight in life at all. His nerves, mind and heart are so overwhelmed that God’s blessing cannot rest on him.”

(From today’s section of ‘My Utmost for His Highest’, Oswald Chambers, which a lovely parishioner gave me for Christmas.)

The only way is down

Some of you may have noticed that Richard Branson was part of an industry task force that recently released a report on the dangers of ‘Peak Oil’ – something that will make the financial crisis the equivalent of a ‘little local difficulty’. Personally speaking I’m glad that the message is finally breaking through to the powers that be. Readers with a long memory might remember that I wrote about this in the Courier back in December of 2005!

Consider the supply of oil from the UK fields in the North Sea:

(Production had a dip in the mid-1980s for two reasons: the collapse in the oil price and the Piper Alpha disaster.)

UK production of oil began in 1975, hit a maximum rate of flow (the ‘peak’) in 1999 and has been declining ever since. Since 2006 the UK has been a net importer of oil – we had gone from being a major exporter to an importer in seven years (this is very significant, and I’ll come back to this issue in a later article) – and as a consequence our balance-of-payments as a nation has been crippled, yet one more example of the financial black hole that our country is presently in.

The real trouble is that this issue of an oil-field beginning production, increasing to a peak, and then inexorably declining with malign consequences, isn’t something that only applies to the UK. The US went through the same situation in 1970. For them, it meant losing control of the oil market, ceding that control to OPEC, and living through the consequent energy crises of the 1970’s. In fact, of some 65 nations who produce oil, around 54 have now passed their peak. The real question then is: at what point will oil supply for the world peak? Sadly, the answer to that is ’round about now’ – the world is now in roughly the place that the UK was in in the late 1990s. There is more oil being produced than ever before, and if we simply use the past as a guide to the future, then all seems rosy. Sadly, nature doesn’t allow oil to be extracted forever. There is a limited amount, and we are facing a future with much less available.

What does it actually mean on the ground? Well, to explain Peak Oil to people that have never heard of it before I like to develop an analogy. Let’s say that a new pub opens on Mersea, and this pub has a wonderful new beer selling for £1 a pint. They haven’t done any publicity, so on the opening night, only one person comes along. Of course, he thinks this is marvellous, and so the next night he brings a friend. The next night, they both bring friends; the night after, they all bring friends. The pub is a success! Demand for this wonderful beer is increasing. However, success brings its own problems. There comes a point when the demand for pints is greater than the publican is able to supply. At that point there are realistically only three possibilities:

1. the publican puts the price up, which helps to reduce demand to a manageable level;
2. the publican sets up a rationing system – you can all have two pints each; or
3. the customers start fighting to get to the bar.

This is the situation that we face. We have seen 1) in the price of oil going up to almost $150 a barrel in 2008 – not an insignificant factor in our present recession. We have also seen 3) in the occupation of Iraq and various other realpolitik manoeuvrings by China in particular. In reality, especially after the fuel-tax protests of 2000, the government has already put plans in place with regard to 2) which we are likely to hear much more about over the next decade.

What Peak Oil means is that the supply of oil will first become expensive, and then become scarce. This will have a major impact upon most facets of our lives. Take a moment to think about what you have done today, and then think about how oil has enabled certain things to happen. From the clothes that we wear, to the toothpaste we clean our teeth with, to the food on our breakfast table, to the transport we so often take for granted, oil is the necessary underpinning for our contemporary society. All of this is at risk. The transport sector is the most vulnerable, but the ripples from the peaking of the oil supply extend much more widely.

The US government commissioned a report on Peak Oil which was published in 2005. The exact date of the peak is a matter of controversy – not least because it would have a major impact on the share prices of oil companies, and others – so the researchers were not asked to talk about when Peak Oil would happen, only what the implications were. The report said this: “The world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and long-lasting. Previous energy transitions (wood to coal and coal to oil) were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and discontinuous.”

So: what is to be done? More on that in the next issue.