why the church should care about top gear

17 06 2015

With Chris Evans revealed as new Top Gear presenter – the world’s worst kept broadcasting secret especially if you watched TFI Friday – that pillar of blokey TV and payer of Dave’s bills is back on the front pages.

Groan, you may. 

I know a lot of people who don’t care about Top Gear. It is derided as chauvinistic, childish, sometimes offensive and often simply irrelevant. A friend of mine tweeted that they had ‘no interest at all in who is or is not presenting a show about motorised toys.’

The trouble is, Top Gear is massive. Globally. Especially in a certain demographic. And that demographic happens to match the one that the church consistently fails to reach. 


So perhaps we should think a little about what makes Top Gear so popular. After all, it’s got no sex, no girls, virtually no swearing. It’s loved by children and their dads. And granddads. It’s not exactly wholesome, but it’s not Game of Thrones either.

Popular Thing Number One – Humour
Love them or loathe them, the main thing that made it work – and the challenge for Chris Evans and his new team, which will include a female presenter – is that the presenter chemistry worked. They were mates, they were funny; they did cheeky banter, they took the mick out of each other. Yes it was scripted, to a point, but we know that. Humour goes a long way in a making something essentially not very interesting to most people – a new car – into something interesting. Church leaders have a lot to learn from that. It’s not about that scripted sermon joke, but about relaxing, playing to your strengths, seeing the comedy around you.

Popular Thing Number Two – Normal Language
But perhaps more importantly for us, they talked about cars in the way most normal men talk about cars. For a bit, in not too much detail, with enough to satisfy car geeks but not too too much to alienate the casual watcher. For a preacher with a mixed audience of new Christians who don’t know a Hosea from a horsepower, to church geeks who need the original Greek quoted in every sentence, it’s a tightrope we walk all the time. To talk about faith in a way normal people talk about it. Ditch the hifalutin language and church-speak and ridiculous outfits.

Popular Thing Number Three – Humour (again)
The presenters were experts who didn’t take themselves too seriously. Experts? Well, they knew more than me, they could fix stuff, break stuff, make stuff. But they could laugh about it. They knew they were geeks, and it didn’t matter. We church leaders can take ourselves so seriously sometimes. In our suits or robes with pious words and an air of superiority, when actually people  – not just men – relate to us being normal, laughing at ourselves, admitting our mistakes, knowing when we’re being dull because we love the subject but no-one else cares… 

So perhaps instead of dismissing the most popular TV programme for our missing demographic – blokes and their sons – we should pay attention. Maybe there’s more to learn that we thought.

sewing up the curtain

14 09 2014

So often it seems we celebrate the curtain being torn in two, then spend Sunday mornings trying to stitch it back up again. Maybe if your church is anything like ours, you know what I mean. We talk about being able to approach the throne of grace with confidence, then we design our churches like throne rooms with the ‘special bit’ where God is, over there, whether it’s an altar (it’s a table. A TABLE!), or the pulpit, or the worship band stage – it’s where the important stuff happens anyway. And it’s over there. Up there. Elevated.

the bishop wasn’t convinced about the reordering of the chancel

I know my denomination is probably worse than yours. We use words like altar, we have priests, special clothes… all of this serves to create this image that we say one thing, then do the other. We talk about a level playing field, whilst we build our side higher. But I guess most denominations are as bad. All church leaders know people – in church and outside of it – who think we have a ‘hotline’ to God, that we can ‘put a good word in’ because somehow our word is ‘worth more’. Like we’re some kind of religious order of butlers, taking messages and carrying the dinner and knowing the secrets of the King.

I understand why. It makes more sense to think that we all need someone else to approach God for us. Because that’s like real life. We don’t get to talk to the big wigs, we have to go through go-betweens. And God is the biggest of bigwigs. And it’s scary too, to think of approaching God. Especially if our picture of God is coloured by memories of strict headmasters or vicars who tell you off for genuflecting half a second late. So we let other people do it – the ordained, the prophetic, the musical…

But we are all welcome to approach God with confidence. His throne is a throne of grace, not malice; of mercy, not judgement. We have to intentionally choose to believe that. Choose to trust, not to fear. Otherwise it is like stitching the temple curtain back up again. 

This matters, it really matters. Because there are some people in this world who walk round with a sense of entitlement, but I don’t meet many. Most people I meet carry a sense of belittlement, of insignificance, so will hide outside the door to God’s throne room forever in fear of what he will do if he catches them sneaking around. We need to change that.

Church, let’s remember the curtain came down. Let’s leave it down. 



interest in religion is dead, right?

19 11 2013

It’s a drum people love to bang, that all wise and civilised folk have ‘moved on’ from childish beliefs in gods of any description (apart from 95% of the world), and that nobody is interested any more. So, I just thought I’d highlight this major TV series that took America by storm and is being shown here in December:

Oh, and this tiny little film featuring an unknown actors called, erm, Russell Crow and Anthony Hopkins:

You see, in the midst of our obsession with personal mini-stories has been the resurgence of the mega-story, what theologians call the meta-narrative. We’ve seen it in the big stories of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, and even the Batman Trilogy and Superman reboots, among others. How did we get here, how did things end up like this, is there redemption, if there is a God then what does he say, and what would he have us do?

We desperately want to to believe there is something greater than us. We know there is more to life than what immediately surrounds us. We are endlessly fascinated by stories, myths and legends that show us something about ourselves. It just so happens some of them are true.  

It seems interest in religion isn’t dead, after all.

the monster under the bed

17 09 2013

I have an innate fear of The Monster Under the Bed. This Monster is very dangerous, especially if you are toes or fingers. It eats toes and fingers. It’s fussy though – the toes or fingers must be dangling over the side. Oh it loves danglers. Being quite tall and a possessor of toes and fingers (still), this makes  me an easy target for The Monster. So I keep myself well within the boundaries of the mattress. The Monster cannot be upon the mattress. The mattress is A Safe Place. The Monster also cannot eat toes and fingers that are in contact with The Ground. I have no idea why.  

I don’t think I am alone in this. If I am, humour me. it’s not the Truman Show. Now, I don’t actually believe there is a monster, but that doesn’t stop the tricks my mind plays on me in the darkness. I genuinely do keep my toes and fingers on the mattress. The fear of what cannot be seen, when allowed to fester, can grow and grow. 

Last week EastEnders took this idea and applied it to real life in a scene between Cat and Ronnie. If you don’t know the background, stick with me from a brief summary. A couple of years ago Cat and Ronnie both had babies; Ronnie’s died, and in a fit of madness she swapped hers for Cat’s, so Cat thought hers had died. However, she was found out, and went to prison, but it pretty much destroyed Cat and her husband. Ronnie has just been released from prison, and is the Pariah in the Square. Nobody wants to know a baby-snatcher. Convoluted plot I know. But…

Cat went to meet Ronnie from prison. Cat offered her a place to stay on her first night. Cat was the one person who showed Ronnie kindness. 

Ronnie: Cat, why are you doing this?
Cat: I don’t know, I don’t get it either. I s’pose it’s like when you’re a kid, and you think there’s something under the bed, and the more you think about it, the bigger and scarier it gets,  and when you finally get the guts to have a look, it’s just a pair of old socks [smiles]. You’re just a pair of old socks. 
Ronnie: What about everyone else? Do they think the same? 

I know it’s hardly Shakespeare  But the point is that when you actually look the monster in the face it turns out not to be so scary after all. When you see those who have done bad to you not as people to be angry and bitter at, but simply as on old pair of socks, the fear may simply vanish. Is this forgiveness? Not quite. But it is so much better than Cat going with her claws out to get revenge. 

The story of EastEnders will move on. No doubt there will be more claws and tears. But so many people get their role models and moral philosophy from soaps sometimes it is good to pause and think – that’s a good bit to remember. Instead of focusing on the fear, the hurt, instead of growing the monster under the bed by our own inaction, let’s see it for what it is. An old pair of socks. Harmless unless we feed it with our fear, with our endless cycles of revenge. Break the cycle. Stare down the monster. There is no monster. 

That said, I’m still keeping my toes in, because the kitten genuinely does eat dangly toes. That’s my excuse.  

(watch the scene here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/i/b03b2hct/?t=17m44s)

some things cost more than you realise

15 05 2013

This is a video commissioned by Muse and MTV Exit as an initiative against human trafficking. 

It is easy to think it happens somewhere else. Next week I am going to a conference in nearby Croydon called Preventing Modern Slavery/Human Trafficking in Croydon. Because it happens on my doorstep. And yours too. And we wear it. Some things cost more than we realise. 

For more information about human trafficking see Stop the Traffik or YCAT. Because people shouldn’t be bought and sold, and slaves should be free. If it’s works in your community, use this video to spread the word.  

broad church, broken world

22 04 2013

On the face of it it was just another detective story. There are so many on TV it’s as if creative drama ideas have gone into a double-dip recession. And unusually for ITV, it wasn’t a Morse spin-off. But Broadchurch has surprised me – ITV-drubbing snob that I am – by holding my attention across all 8 episodes. 

** plot spoilers ** don’t read if you haven’t seen it yet!!

Broadchurch got better with each episode, as it exposed the flaws in the characters and peeled back the hidden layers. And the final episode was extraordinary, I think, for a 2013 drama. It was told simply, powerfully. The ‘reveal’ was patient, and even though I had guessed who it was 2 episodes ago (never trust the minor character with a speaking role) it actually didn’t matter. This was no Poirot-style shallow quick-fix nonsense, nor was it cliche-driven histrionics.

Paedophilia. There is nothing – nothing – that lights the touch-paper in our culture quite like it. Rarely is the subject covered in anything other than a sensationalist way.  Rarely do we get an insight into the gradual beginnings of unhealthy relationships. Rarely do we get a chance to catch our breath before the mob are shouting about the categorically evil ‘other’ who can do this sort of thing. 

Real life is complicated. Real relationships are complicated. Real life doesn’t contain the simple black and white categories our (predominantly) unthinking culture (and media) would like us to have. Real life is a broad church of broken and breaking people, of healed and healing people, of people with hearts of glass who shatter and cut and who can be – really can be – restored, though always scarred. The scars are important. 

The broad church that we try to be, to hold together, following Jesus in our own uniquely broken ways, this broad church is one in which we sob with the broken. When worlds fall apart, whether through bad decisions or external circumstances, we try to be the ones who find a way to sob too. Sadness is universal. Broadchurch showed families torn apart, and maybe it got to me because that is what I see. 

Broadchurch left me sad, but it did not leave me feeling hopeless. Not just because for once the vicar wasn’t the easy target. But because the story did not end with mob justice, but a community of broken people standing together (I know it was cheesy, but we needed something!). And there was no easy resolution between the two families, because there is no easy resolution in real life. Rarely is a series able to hold these two in tension. Rarely are we, the people, given the trust in ourselves to be able to see this. 

“You wanted easy answers, and scapegoats, and bogeymen. The world’s more grey.” [DI Hardy]

Following Jesus means that we cannot mete out cheap justice. Following Jesus means that we face impossible situations head-on. Following Jesus means that we shoulder the burdens of the world but we do not do it alone. Following Jesus means that we see into the hearts of all people and by the grace of God we can carry on, we can even find love for those we understand the least, for those we want to hate, for those who confuse us because they do not fit, and those who make us angry because, as the question was asked twice: how could you not know? 

Evil is not ‘other’, darkness is not ‘over there’. But in the darkness – from within it, not from outside of it – shines the light. From within the darkness there is always hope for – and even from – a broad and broken world, and a broad and broken church.   

I have written previously about a more personal encounter with this subject in reputation

justin’s house

9 11 2012

It is a place in chaos, different factions yelling out at will, seemingly uncontrollable energy for shouting out and not being heard. Not to mention the camp robot, the woman on a unicycle and the hairy monster. Just another day in Lambeth Palace? Sorry, wrong Justin’s House. 

I am sure there are similarities between being the central character in the drama of CBeebies comedic chaos that is Justin’s House and being the central character in the drama that is Lambeth Palace, new home of Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury. For example, what appears to be in chaos is actually pretty well coordinated; what happens behind the scenes is far more important than what happens in front of the cameras; and actually Justin wouldn’t exist without his supporting cast.  Not to mention the hairy monster. Or is he the one that’s just retired? 

Being the Archbishop of Canterbury is not a task I would wish upon anybody. Being a figurehead of an organisation is never easy, but especially one as diverse and misunderstood as the Church of England. To outsiders, he is the leader of the church, a bit like the Pope for the English. He is not. What he says is taken to be the view of the Church of England. It is not. The media will portray Justin Welby as inheriting a chaotic and divided, eternally dwindling and hopeless institution. It is not. Ok, not all of it. 

It is easy to be cynical and see the flaws in any candidate. I was quick to be cynical about his Eton schooling and the obsession with upper-class education at the top-levels of our church. But, but. He has a grounded faith born out of experience of privilege and of tragedy; he learnt the trade by getting his hands dirty as we all do and he got there by sacrificing a 6-figure salary as he answered his calling. It’s rubbish to be so quick to judge like me.   

As Lambeth Palace becomes Justin’s House, as he begins to grapple with being the ‘conscience of the nation’; as he finds ways to challenge businesses and governments; as he visits churches large and small; as he meets global leaders and local mums; as he carefully chooses words that will be endlessly misquoted, turned into soundbites, twisted to fit the media’s agenda; as he goes home to be a husband, a dad and a friend; and as he seeks to live out his life as a follower of Jesus, we wish him well.

But we do more than that. We stand together as representatives of a diverse, ragtag bunch of people, divided because our God is not one of oppression who forces us to unilateral agreement; and united by our common faith in Jesus Christ. Much like the church always has been. See the New Testament.

There is rarely peace in Justin’s House. May there be peace in his. 

For more on the appointment of Justin Welby, click here and scroll down to “Interviews with Fraser and Kuhrt”, and this video with Stephen Kuhrt in the Daily Telegraph. For the official press release see the Archbishop of Canterbury’s website.

water or water

6 07 2012

Sometimes there’s comedy in the gospels that we miss with our straight-laced reading and bland NIV translation. I was preparing for a full-immersion baptism, and the Bible passage was the woman at the well. It seemed appropriate as there’s lots of water. As I was reading it, the incident was suddenly laced with comedy and verbal slapstick.

Jesus meets this excluded women at the watering hole. She is collecting water. He needs water. He asks her for water. He means water. She asks him how he can ask her for water, what with her being a Samaritan. He says, if you knew who I was you would ask me for water, and I would give life-giving water.

He’s talking about something deeper than water water but she still thinks he’s talking about water water. So she says but you haven’t got a bucket for water. He looks confused because you don’t need a bucket for his water, which isn’t water water but living water. He tries again, saying that this water water might quench thirst but you will be thirsty again, but his water (not water water, other water) becomes a spring of water (other water, not water water) that gives life eternal. 

She thinks, that water’s got to be better than water water if it means I don’t have to come to the water hole with a bucket, I’ll have some please. But Jesus isn’t talking about water water. He’s talking about… water. Other water. Same word, different meaning.

Then after some personal disclosure he didn’t have a form or a risk assessment for, the disciples return and offer him food. They mean food food. He says, I have food to eat that you know nothing about. They are confused, thinking he has stashed sandwiches in his jumper so why did they bother going shopping. But he’s not talking about food food, but food. Same word, different meaning.

I couldn’t help but think of this famous Two Ronnies sketch. So we watched it in the service.

It’s all quite funny really, this comedy of errors and misunderstandings. Like when Jesus said this is my body and it’s made of bread. He didn’t mean he was a dough ball… Imagine where that thinking could lead.  

There’s food for thought.

has social networking changed our morality?

20 06 2012

This is the question posed by 4thought.tv on Channel 4 this week. It is well worth a look, you can view all of the contributions on the website as well seeing them at 7.55pm on Channel 4. My favourite is obviously Jon Kuhrt, but that’s because I know him and his blog, but I won’t mention that. 

What do you reckon? I know some of my readers are well into social networking, and some of you are not, except to read the occasional blog. Like this one. Are there other, greater, influences on our morality?

the lament of mrs vicarage

13 11 2011

And so it’s return was as good as I had hoped – a bitter-sweet tragi-comedy of awkward moments, insightful arguments and exaggerated characters that makes the BBC’s Rev so good to watch. Ricky Gervais, your domination of painful ‘real-life’ comedy is well and truly over.  

In episode 1 Rev managed once again to squeeze depth into it’s little band of characters, from the terrifying Archdeacon Robert to the amorous Adoa to the “we’ve all got one” Colin and the new slightly sinister Bishop of London. But most of all Adam himself.

No,  actually even more most of all, Mrs Vicarage herself, Alex Smallbone. When she went into her diatribe a few minutes in, I could hear vicar’s wives (and yes, vicar’s husbands) everywhere shouting at the telly – go girl, you tell ’em!

Watch the diatribe here, or read below:

Do you know the last time I had a whole weekend with you Adam all to myself? Er, no neither do I because oh yes that’s right, it’s never happened!
I’m sorry, what’s the matter?
What’s the matter? I’m fed up with never seeing you, that’s what’s the matter. I’m fed up with your congregants saying what a shame Alex couldn’t come today like they’ve got some masters degree in passive-aggression just because I happen to have been busy at work. I’m fed up with coming home from work and only to make yet another mushroom stroganoff for some sodding church meeting of pedantic bores who want to sit around in my home discussing how to put in a fire exit or whatever. I want to have a child with you because I don’t just want to be a solicitor all my life but you don’t shag me enough…
Erm, I do… don’t I? Really..
No, because this house is permanently full of people making unceasing demands on your time because they’ve got nothing else in their lives…

As the role of vicar has changed beyond recognition in recent years, so has the role of their partner, and not just because there are now an increasing number of vicar’s husbands. There are also an increasing number who work full-time themselves; and an increasing number who don’t want to be seen as the ‘also comes with’ to the vicar, but as a person in their own right. So, if you bake, then bake, but not because you are married to the vicar. If you like having tea with old ladies, then do it, but not because you’re the vicar’s wife.

To me, the vicar’s wife or husband is the background hero of parish life, no matter whether they bake or host or do the traditional thing or not. It’s because they answer the phone and are expected to be the adminstrator, secretary and vicar’s GPS; they are expected to attend church and be friendly and know what’s going on and so often be the buffer between ‘the people’ and the vicar. And most of all because they love us, and have agreed to give up a ‘normal’ life for a definitely abnormal one, putting down roots and making friends in someone else’s community knowing the pain that will come when you are uprooted again and again.

For us, we have always been lucky. In the 2 parishes we have been in, the lovely Fran has pretty much always been treated as Fran, and still is. Thank you for that. I couldn’t do what I do or be what I be (!?) without her.

So Mrs (and Mr) Vicarage we salute you. We hear your lament, and we are sorry for all the times we put life before you. And Rev, may you continue to point out, with humour and pain and poignant conversations the mystery of life that is one lived in a vicarage.

Read the point of view of a real vicar’s wife on the Vicar’s Wife blog.

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