Saturday, January 20, 2018

unoriginal instruments

I was listening to the radio today and a heretical thought crossed my mind:

Hasn't the period instrument stuff gotten boring?

I mean - back in the olden days, say, like the 1970s, when there were folk who clearly had a direct line back to stuff like Mozart, it was a fascinating thing. Musicians, fed up with being able to play familiar scores, started to play them faster just to see if it was possible. Often it wasn't, but we loved it anyway. We were told it was old, but it was new.

And then came the influx of "original instruments" - like real instruments, but impossible to play. So we had stunningly well recorded versions of Bach and, well, more Bach, played sometimes really nearly in tune.

Just like Bach would have heard it himself.

It was a crazy time - people thought of all sorts of things, like using really bad pianos to record Mozart concertos, and then changing 'pitch' - reading the same music but playing a semi-tone lower than you were reading. Really technical stuff. And given that, that most of the notes still came out in the right place and in the right order was awesome. No wonder we gave those guys awards by the bucketful.

But now...

Original instruments sound so...unoriginal.

They're so in tune. So accurate. So together. So like real music. I mean, that's it really. When you go to a concert, you can see some of the flutes are wooden, and some of the string instruments are a funny shape, and some of the trumpets are side-ways on, but when you just listen - it's like listening to proper people playing proper grown-up instruments. It's all so professional.

It's like Simon Cowell has applied autotune to everything.

It is sort of pretty; but it's not so much fun. Somewhere along the way the early music brigade has exchanged its personality for a glossy coat.

Monday, January 08, 2018

New Year, New Blog

I have a new blog. This one will keep running with the usual mix of - well, whatever it is I put on here...

But now there's also The Possibility of Difference . This one is where I'll put thoughts & theologies & stories to do with issues of sexuality in the Bible & the church today. By all means wander over & take a look!

Thursday, January 04, 2018

New Year, New Toast

As a regular listener to Radio 3's Breakfast programme, it is with some resignation that I hear of the excitement in the various announcers' voices as they talk of the "New Year, New Music" promotion that is being offered to us in January.

It's like a musical Dry January. Having had a feast of lovely music in the run-up to Christmas, we pay for it by having to listen to all sorts of gargling sounds in the first days of 2018.

"...And this is a wonderful combination of the bells of Winchester cathedral, the human voice and a vacuum cleaner, all mixed in together..."

Still, at least there are three things to give thanks for as we endure New Year, New Music.
1. February will soon be here.
2. The dog is occasionally entranced by the bizarre noises emanating from the radio as we wake up, and sits staring at the speaker till it all gets too much. Then he barks. And then I get up.
3. And - thank God - they have learned from a former experience, and at least we don't have the New Composer in residence that we had a couple of years ago.

This last thing was a terrific experiment that came straight from a Radio 3 version of W1A. Having listened through the whole darned thing, I imagine it went like this...

The Director of New at Radio 3 had an idea. Or, one of his team did, which (essentially) is exactly the same thing. So he sent an email to the Editor of Breakfast, and they met for coffee in Debussy, the Radio 3 canteen.

"Thanks for making time," said New.
"Always a pleasure," said Breakfast.
The Editor of Breakfast had been rather stunned to receive the email. The Director of New was well-known for arriving in the office at 11.30 every morning, and it was generally presumed he had no idea that Radio 3 offered a breakfast programme to the nation.

"I've had an idea," said New.
"Yes, great."
"Isn't it?"

They drank their coffee.

"Well, what is it?" asked Breakfast, nervously.
"Oh, of course," smiled New, "how silly."
"Not at all."
"You were saying?"

"We at New are always looking for ways to further the embrace of New throughout the purview of the great Network that is Three..."
"Quite right."
"Yes, well, we realised that amongst all that whatever it is you do at whenever it is you do it on Breakfast - wonderful title, by the way, so - descriptive - "
"Thank you."
"Well, there's not much New is there?"

The Editor of Breakfast sat, silent. Then:
"Not much New?"
"I mean, I listened today - well, obviously, I didn't, but I read the playlist, which is pretty much the same thing - "
"Pretty much."
"And there was plenty there that was new to me. I didn't even know the Apprentice was a ballet."
"It's not."
"It is - it said so on the play list."
"The music is from a ballet."
"Same thing."
"Bloody hell."
"As I said, new to me. But not - New. So we thought -"
"I'm a bit nervous."
"Don't be. We thought - Jacinta has a cousin who knows this chap who won a prize at, well, who cares, but the thing is, he's an actual composer. Like Alan Sugar."
"Bloody hell."
"And we've hired him."

Stunned silence.

The Editor of Breakfast tapped his cup, nervously, wondering if it would make much difference at this point if he smashed it over the Director of New's head.

"You've hired him? Why?"
"Because - and you'll love this - for six weeks he's going to write a piece of music a week for Breakfast. Something New. New, do you get? We'll be working together!"
"Bloody hell."
"And am I allowed to know his name?"
"Oh yes, he definitely has one."

And that was that.

Geraint Brynmor-Hughes was delighted to be commissioned by the nation's most prestigious serious music network to produce six short works for broadcast. It was - by far - his most significant opportunity to date. When the Director of New had first approached him, he had needed no persuading. When he had been offered actual money for the six pieces he had wept openly.

So Geraint Brynmor-Hughes put enormous thought and effort into his first work. It was important that the listeners to the nation's most prestigious serious music network understood his thought processes and the way he approached the task of composition. It mattered that they entered into the journey of self-understanding and communal-expression which embraced the every day and then transcended the ordinary.

Week One
"September Morning" was broadcast at the end of August.

The Breakfast team were slightly tense as they awaited the delivery of the recording. It was felt that they too should hear it for the first time with the nation.
"Builds the suspense."
"Makes everyone everyone."
"And, to be fair, this way it really is New."

At 7.43 Petroc announced - "We're delighted that today begins our new series of Composer in Residence pieces with six new compositions by prize-winning young composer, Geraint Brynmor-Hughes. This is 'September Morning'.

A low growling noise spluttered from an unsuspecting nation's radios. It was followed by a high-pitched squeal, that ululated, paused, stuttered, repeated, and was then joined by the percussive rhythm of a pneumatic drill with added Chinese gong.

The whole thing lasted one minute and twenty four seconds.

In the Breakfast studio, there was sheer terror. Followed by Petroc announcing:
"'September Morning' by Geraint Brynmor-Hughes, the first of six new compositions especially for Radio Three Breakfast in an exciting new series. Next, Chopin."

As the Chopin began, so did the recriminations.
"What the **** was that?"
"No it bloody well wasn't."
"It's on the list again for 8.39"
"Well take it off."
"But the list..."
"It's a minute and twenty seconds - Petroc can talk to the newsreader for all I care. That's New!"
"He does that most days."
"He's definitely doing it today."
"Who on earth is Geraint Brynmor-Hughes anyway?"
"Someone someone in New knows. Won a competition."
"For what?"
"Bloody well fooled me."
"Oh God."
"Look at the Twitter feed..."

Twitter was not the natural environment of the nation's most prestigious serious music network's Breakfast listener - so when #Radio3GBH was trending by 7.55, it was either a very bad or a very good thing. Depending.

Either way, Geraint's second composition came a week later.

Week Two
The Editor of Breakfast waited at the door of Broadcasting House for the Director of New to arrive.
"Did you hear it?"
"You didn't."
"Of course I did. Marvellous."
"In what world is ninety seconds of Saami folk song mixed with computer game noises and 'The Price is Right' theme bloody marvellous?"
"Look, you just have to understand 'New'."
"Or music. They seem to be alternatives."
"It's water cooler stuff though isn't it? I mean, here we are!"
They walked past the water cooler in the entrance foyer.
"I'm really sorry," said Breakfast, "but we're pulling the plug."
"Why?" asked New. "Too many listeners? Too many people talking about your show? Too much exposure for Petroc? Afraid he'll leave? I have had lots of enquiries... All that social media stuff must be very - what's the word - New."

The Editor of Breakfast fumed.
"It's just not right for us!"
"Then have Geraint on the programme," smiled New. "He's a lovely chap."
"Know him well, do you?" hissed Breakfast.

Week three
"And this morning," melifluated Petroc, "we're delighted to welcome our Composer in Residence, Geraint Brynmor-Hughes to the studio, to tell us all about his latest composition for us. Geraint, welcome."
"Is that a Welsh accent I can hear there?"
"No, I'm from Brighton."
"Ah - forgive me..."
"It's OK, I get it a lot. The name."
"And your latest piece, I must say - they've been causing everyone to talk - what is this one called?"
"Can you tell us something of the way you approach writing new music?"
"Well, this one is a classical Badinerie in form, but with hip-hop rhythms using household electrical items, and a bagpipe."
"Can't wait. Here's 'Thoughtfulness' by our Composer in Residence, Geraint Brynmor-Hughes."

Later, at the door to Broadcasting House, the Editor of Breakfast, accompanied by several members of his team, stood waiting at 11.29 for the arrival of the Director of New at Radio Three.
"Ah - Good morning!"
"Yes, well -"
"I see Twitter is agog with GBH!"
"Which is something -"
"It is indeed. Who'd have thought it?"
"Who indeed?"
"Hashtag Radio3GBH? Trending!"
"GBH is about right."
"Do I hear dissent in the camp?"
"What you hear is bloody full-grown revolt."

The Director of New paused.

"Full-grown revolt?"
"Bloody hell."
"And we're not going to play any more vacuum cleaners, pneumatic drills, computer game noises or hip hop on Breakfast."
"But you'll keep the Saami, the Chinese gongs and the bagpipe?"
"So you have been listening?"
"BBCiPlayer. Wonderful thing."

The Breakfast team stared at the Director of New as they all emerged from the lift onto the Third floor and seemed to be heading for a showdown in Copeland.

"It's not just that Brynmor-Hughes has no idea about, I don't know, basic Harmony -"
"Or melody."
"Yes, I see what you mean."
"Or, well, notes as such."
"You mean music per se?"
"It's not just all that."
"Though he did win a prize."
"So did Petroc's cousin's bull at the Great Western Show."
"For composition?"
"More likely than Brynmor-Hughes."
"It's just not very - Breakfast."

"But - " said New -
"Well, just a thought, really -"
"I'm listening."
"No, I realise the revolt is too far gone for this."
"What were you going to say?"
"Well, it's just that I've sort of paid him upfront."
"And it is the Great British Public's money, you know."
"Bloody hell."
"So would it help if - and I'm just spitballing here - we asked him to try using, well -"
"Yes, I suppose. I was going to say -"
"A tune?"
"That's probably a bit hopeful. How about a violin?"
"A violin?"
"Or a recorder."
"A recorder?"
"Something you'd find in an orchestra."
"A recorder. Something you'd find in an orchestra. Right."
"Anything. A more traditional approach."
"Everyone on board?"
"Bloody hell."

Week four
The response to Geraint Brynmor-Hughes' First String Quartet, broadcast 'live' on BBC Radio 3's Breakfast programme, was overwhelming.

It had recognisable instruments. It had four movements (Allegro - Preparation; Scherzo - Oven Timer; Adagio - Reading the Newspaper; Vivace - Dinner). It had no melodies, which might have been a slight negative, but much more importantly - it lasted (in total, all four movements all together) thirty seven seconds.

It was an unmitigated success.
"Well," exclaimed Petroc after it finished at just after 7.51, "I think we'll be hearing that again later!"

It was played seventeen times on Breakfast during the week.
The Director of New sent the Editor of Breakfast an email:

17! Thank you!
He received a reply:
37" Thank you.

Week five
"Geraint, sweetie, we're thinking of following up the String Quartet with another absolute classic."
"I've got something in mind too."
"Really, what?"
"It combines banjo playing and cement mixers on the A1-M."
"We're thinking more - choral. Have you ever worked with the BBC Singers?"
"The BBC what?"
"Singers. Wonderful. They sing."
"I guessed."
"First rate, I'm told. Songs, and, you know, other things. Well, they can't wait. The String Quartet has everyone wanting to perform your music."
"It does?"
"So what do you want me to write?"
"I wouldn't presume."
"Just keep your usual touchstone of the real world."
"For the BBC Singers."
"I knew you'd see it."

Petroc welcomed Geraint back into the Breakfast studio.
"And we're delighted to welcome back Geraint Brynmor-Hughes, our Welsh Composer in Residence."
"From Brighton."
"Tell us Geraint, have you been surprised by the response to last week's String Quartet?"
"It's not something I'm used to."
"I wouldn't have thought so."
"I mean, writing for a string quartet."
"So what made you branch out?"
"Er - well, it's been brilliant having the opportunity to write for Breakfast, really."
"And we have certainly experienced it with you. Now this week the studio is crammed because again we have a 'live' performance - another first performance - this time a choral work. Is choral writing something you enjoy?"
"I'll let you know."
"Tell us about this work, sung for us this morning by the BBC Singers under the direction of chief conductor David Hill."
"Well, I was at the Heston Services and I read the menu, and it came to me that this might be the perfect subject for a choral work."
"So though it's a 'live' performance, there's also some feedback, a bit of looping and a repeat."
"Just like being at the service station. Can't wait. Here's 'Menu' by Geraint Brynmor-Hughes."

Week six
Well, thought the Editor of Breakfast as he strolled towards work, this is finally it. One more day and it's all over. Everyone will be happy. The Director of New will be old news. Life will return to normal.

So he was somewhat surprised to arrive at Broadcasting House before the sun had even thought of getting up to find the Director of New waiting for him at the door.
"Good Lord."
"Isn't it?"
"I didn't know you did this time of day."
"I don't usually."
"To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Pleasure is the word. You may thank me now."
Breakfast felt queasy.
"Thank you?"
"Not at all."
"No - thank you for what?"
"Oh I see."
"Really - for what."
"Aha! Come and see!"

Inside Broadcasting House, New led Breakfast to studio seven, which had been laid out to broadcast or record a whole symphony orchestra.
"What's this for?" asked Breakfast.
New smiled: "You asked for something more Breakfast."
"Bloody hell."
"A piano would've done."
"Well I give you the BBC Symphony Orchestra."

The editor of Breakfast was shell-shocked.
"We are the nation's most prestigious serious music network."
"But - that's our annual budget sitting there."
"And about ten minutes of mine."
"At this time in the morning?"
"Well, not at this time - but by the time you're on air, yes."
"When have they rehearsed?"
"Rehearsed? It's Geraint bloody Brynmor-Hughes we're talking about, it's not like they're backing Shirley Bassey."
"No, well."
"I suppose these are professionals."
"And musicians."
"Some of them both at the same time."
"That's the spirit."
"So what has he written for them?"
"No idea. It's a tribute to Breakfast."
"What's it called?"
New looked at his iPhone.
"Bloody hell."

Petroc had a monitor showing him studio seven. He could see the BBC Symphony Orchestra ready to play Breakfast by Geraint Brynmor-Hughes. He, and the rest of the team in the Breakfast studio, were alone in the world in being slightly prepared for what was about to happen.

The string players had been given plates, knives and forks. Woodwind had boxes of cereal (sealed). The brass players had been given bowls of different sizes filled with differing quantities of milk, and were standing by with their mouthpieces, ready to blow. Everyone else had either bread or some form of electrical device (ranging from coffee maker to food mixer).

Not a single 'orchestral' instrument was in evidence.
The composer sat nervously at the side of the seventy musicians.
Sakari Oramo stood at the podium, ready to conduct.

A Rossini overture finished and Petroc announced that it was time for the final of the six specially-composed pieces by Composer in Residence, Geraint Brynmor-Hughes, who was "sitting ready with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, for a magnificent world-premier performance of a stunning new work - Breakfast!"

The scraping of cutlery across plates moved from first violins to seconds to violas to cellos and double basses; soon all of the string players were attacking their plates. Woodwind began (slowly at first) to shake cereal boxes, with an increasing rhythm that grew in intensity and menace. The brass took turns to blow into their bowls - till suddenly in a crescendo all of them were blowing at once, and the electrical devices switched on together. This cacophony lasted a full ten seconds till those with bread threw it in the air and as Sakari Oramo brought his beat down for the final time, the whole orchestra intoned -
"And it's nearly eight O' clock," continued Petroc, without missing a beat, "but there's just time to say that in St Mary's Church in Whitley St Drayton, there's a performance by the Whitley St Drayton Singers of English Choral Classics this evening at 7.30pm. Do look that one out if you are nearby. Time for the news now, read for us today by..."

*          *         *          *             *

Oh yes. It was quite a thing.
And now we are being made to endure New Year, New Music. Payment for too many nice things over Christmas. There's probably a new Director of New trying to improve us all again. Someone who doesn't realise what we need when those of us who wake up to Breakfast wake up.

At least the powers that be at the nation's most prestigious serious music network are not repeating the Radio Three Breakfast Composer in Residence debacle.

Though, as I scan the Radio Times, I see that this week's Composer of the Week is...

Geraint Brynmor-Hughes.
New Year, New Toast then.

Friday, December 29, 2017

three musicals

I've seen all sorts of shows, plays, operas and concerts this year. I've been very lucky. Musically, the highlight was undoubtedly Igor Levit playing the Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues. It was two and a half hours of magic: that I was on the front row, inches away from the Steinway was a glorious addition to a perfect evening. One I will not forget.

I also loved the two-parter Harry Potter play, and Amadeus at the National at the beginning of the year set a really high bar as to my theatrical expectations.

But there were three musicals that stood out for me in 2017, three shows that will stay with me for all sorts of reasons.

An American in Paris came to London as a transfer from Broadway, with the leads reprising their roles. That it was at the Dominion almost made me not book - I really dislike that barn of a theatre - and the pre-show chatter seemed non-existent, making me wonder if I'd done the right thing...

I had.

From the moment it began, I was in love with it. Yes, it's a song-and-dance karaoke musical, a string of Gershwin hits cobbled together loosely after the Gene Kelly movie. But what songs. And what dancing...

No musical hoofing here, this is a show where the dance is ballet. The leads (Robbie Fairchild, Leanne Cope, phenomenal) are ballet dancers who are doing their first show. It shows - not in their acting or singing, which is as good as any anywhere, but in their dancing which is stunning.

I heard people disappointed in the interval. DISAPPOINTED!!! What did they want, blood? No - they wanted 42nd Street. It's not that. It's sublime. The interplay of the three male leads, the central love story, and the final ballet sequence made me want to stand a cheer and cheer and cheer. This is what you pay to see a show for.

I went again. And second time I was on the front row. From the circle I saw the shape of the choreography; from the front row I saw them dance with their faces. Beautiful. Beautiful.

In 1988 I dragged two friends to see Follies in the West End. Julia MacKenzie, Diana Rigg et al. A star-studded cast, and my first full-blown Sondheim. I loved it. They kind of enjoyed it.

Thirty years on, it's fascinating seeing it again. Of course, back then I was the age of the younger cast; now I'm with the older cast looking back. That's an interesting way to do a show...

Follies at the the National is sensational. The best acted and best sung production imaginable. Not star-studded, but properly cast (and that's not to disrespect Imelda Staunton or anyone else - but it does avoid stunt casting), and with the younger actors constantly shadowing their older selves like ghosts of the questioning past, it sends endless shivers down the spine. The madness of regret - the follies of age and youth - are played out remorselessly before an audience that applauds every last emotional mistake. A stunning theatrical triumph.

I saw it again.

As with An American in Paris, the second viewing was even more powerful than the first. I got (for the first time) how the 'review' songs actually comment on the unfolding catastrophe of the two main couples' lives. It's a show where nothing happens and everything happens, where the show we put on for everyone else finally crumbles to the reality of who we are and where everyone sees the theatre of our lives pulled down - and no-one notices.

It's bombastic. It's nuanced beyond belief. It's a marvel.

And then...

When I told friends here last January I had booked to see Hamilton, they said, "What's that?"
When I told them this week I was going to see Hamilton, they said, "Wow! How did you get tickets!"

I booked because a friend in the US went to see it on Broadway. It's not the kind of thing I'd expect her to like. But she came away raving about it. So I wanted to see it for myself.

It's a sung-through show, like Andrew Lloyd Webber or Les Mis. Not like AiP or Follies. And - the publicity tells you - it's hip hop. So it doesn't sound like my kind of thing.

But Hamilton is for me no Lloyd Webber show; and though I know someone (an otherwise sane someone) who has seen Les Mis more times than she's celebrated Christmas, Hamilton is considerably a better show than Les Mis. (I agree with Doctor Who on Les Mis - life's just too short.) And it's a lot more than a hip hop show - though - oh my - what power that music has, and how incredibly is it deployed.

First: the experience. Lots of the crowd know the show beforehand. (Given I went in the first week, I guess they were really keen, so they have the recording.) It felt much more like a karaoke show than AiP - but that was because of the frisson in the crowd, which made Hamilton - first time West End actor Jamael Westman - feel like a pop star when he stepped forward. It was indeed worthy of the standing ovation it received - my only feeling was that the crowd should have kept going longer. The players deserved more from us.

Then: the show. From the moment it began, it was sensational. It has a power, a rhythm which sweeps you along. The music is varied, the words are profoundly clever, and if at times I found myself wanting more emotion than I was getting - it came. And if I found myself wanting a change of pace, a little light and shade, it too came. From the relentless to the heartbreaking. From the politics to the personal.

Westman is impressive: head and shoulders taller than many of the cast, he holds himself with an enthusiasm and an authority that grows and is shattered as the evening passes. Terrific.

The colour-blind casting is beautiful. A vision of how humanity can be. Of how a nation could be. Should be. If anything, it draws attention to the way in which all the action is driven by men - the women are very secondary - till the very end. And then, one of the main themes of the whole show - who gets to tell the story - is thrown on its head and the woman's voice rings out and re-tells the truth. Beautifully, heartrendingly, better.

Given the ticket availability, I doubt I'll see this one a second time. But maybe I'll try...

I want a musical to entertain, to raise me up, to make me cry, to make me laugh, to engage and to amaze.
All three of these delivered in spades.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Time travelling. The annual pass.

I've been having fun receiving the annual natal congrats today.

FaceBook has decided that a year after my 50th, I'm celebrating my 40th. Well, if it's on the internet, it must be true.

Though @realDonaldTrump hasn't posted about is, so, it may not be completely true. Or it may be very true. Depending on where you get your fake from these days.

Last time I was 40, I had an evening do in the Gelliwastad Club in Pontypridd, with the quartet playing, and lots of friends in black tie. This time was a much quieter day.

Harry & I had a good walk (see picture) in the November sun - and wind, which was quite cold; I baked; I went to see a Janacek opera.

Janacek. There's a guy who knew a good time: "From the House of the Dead". An opera set in a prison camp. I tell you, I know how to celebrate being 40 again. Well, WNO are in Oxford for the week, so I'm going to the full set - Tchaikovsky, Janacek, Strauss. One of these is genuinely a bundle of laughs.

Speaking of laughs, if I let myself, I could describe the whole experience of being 50 as interesting. In the Chinese proverb "interesting times" way, rather than in the "want to have more time being 50 so I can explore it and understand even more of it" way. More Janacek than Strauss.

And then I'd have to add - as Stephen Sondheim so memorably said in a song I've enjoyed again this year in its West End revival - "Lord knows at least I was there, and I'm still here..."

Yet that doesn't quite hit the mark. I've had some fragile times this year. But I was also given the gift of a piano, and I've been playing it every day, sitting down and finding songs old and new to sing and enjoy. All sorts of songs, but at the start of each day - worship songs. It has been a wonderful gift to have this piano. It has kept me spiritually close to God, as such a gift should.

And in my car as I've driven around, all sorts of music has healed my soul. Bach, of course. And Beethoven. And Basie. And Shostakovich - who knew? And most recently some old recordings of worship songs that Dan & Kirsty & I did together before they left Pontypridd. Just the three of us playing through songs and hymns. Simple, beautiful.

I guess I'm saying - it's been a year. There have been moments of fragility. There have been touches of God.

On my second visit to Florida this year I got an art piece which simply says "Rise'. Because every year, often every day gives the choice - is the cup half full or half empty? Which way are you going to see life? Which way are you going to let life see you? Sometimes it really does feel like Back to the Future, facing all the same old same olds all over again, and if the empty won before - how do we do this again?

Because we rise. Because we have a God who rose for us and gives us the same power. Because it doesn't matter what age, what day, what mood we find ourselves in. This may just feel like a crucifixion day: but there's a rising coming. And I choose - now, today, always - to fix my eyes on the rising. To fix my eyes on Jesus, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross.

If it's good enough for Jesus...

As a Christian, I'm supposed to be able to do a little spiritual time travelling on a regular basis - and that's no Fake News. Because we're all supposed to need to look to Easter today in order to reach tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

giving thanks in all things

This last weekend I preached in church on the Feeding of the Five Thousand.

The Gospel reading was the Matthew 14 version of this story. It's a great story, and slightly unusual in that it's one of the few that comes in all four Gospels.

And as I preached, one of my very favourite things happened:
I preached to myself.

I suddenly realised that what I was saying, I was saying to me. The words coming out of my mouth spoke to me.

Now, honestly, it'd be great if every time I preached the power of the word challenged my heart and changed me. But - honestly - this isn't always true. I do try to apply what I say to myself. I do try to think how what I am teaching will help me. But it doesn't always hit me between the eyes and go - Wow! This is God's word to you today!

But this week this happened.

I was carefully working through the text, and explaining how Jesus' disciples weren't quite as filled with endless stores of compassion as Jesus. First, they complain; and second they top the complaint with a problem which they reckon will sort out the issue to their liking.

Jesus is busy healing, having compassion on the crowd, when the disciples have had enough. They want a break. So they suggest it's time to stop. This is the complaint. "Can't we go home now?" "Haven't we done enough already?" Or, in the words of the text: "Send them away to buy their own food. It's late."

Jesus smiles. Concerned about them being hungry? I'm delighted you're learning, and still showing concern. Why don't you feed them?

So the disciples add the deciding problem to the complaint in order to finish the matter off:
"But we have here only five bits of bread and two scraps of fish. Not enough for so many people. End of."

And Jesus lifts his face to God, and says - "Good point. Send 'em home"

No - Jesus does something glorious.

Something so counter-intuitive it changes the world.

Something unthinkably, ridiculously and perfectly Godly.

He picks up the problem. The bread, the fish. The not enough food. And he thanks God for it.
He thanks God for the problem.

Then he breaks the bread. Gives it to the complaining disciples. And the complaining disciples find themselves feeding the massive crowd.


I have a confession to make: as a rector, there are times when people complain to me. I know, this may come as a surprise. And, sometimes, to top off the complaint, people will add a problem which really does finish things off.

Or it's meant to.

Know what I mean?

"And on top of that, he voted Brexit."
"And you'll remember she let us down last year as well."
"Well, we've never done it this way before."

But Jesus takes the very thing that is presented as the deciding problem and gives thanks for it. And the giving thanks leads to the problem being broken. And to the disciples stopping complaining and the crowd being fed.

When was the last time you gave thanks for a problem, a difficulty, something that you didn't like?

I can tell you when it happened to me. Sunday morning. As I preached.


I've got a meeting this week. With some people I'm finding really hard at the moment. It's their fault things are tricky, obviously. Clearly I'm beyond reproach, in this as in all things.

But I have been dreading this meeting.

Yet as I spoke about this moment, this thanksgiving, this transformational thing that Jesus does, this grabbing the problem that tops the complaint and thanking God for it -
I suddenly realised I had to stop my internal monologue of complaint and lift up my upcoming meeting, and all the people involved, the issues around it, the whole darn thing and thank God for every part of it.


We've not got there yet.

The week is young.

I have no idea how this will play out.

But what I do know is that I have been changed by an act of thanksgiving. I am in a different place. I am no longer dreading something ahead. It may well not work out as I'd like! I am however thanking God for his love, his kindness, his provision and his Lordship. However this time goes, he will still be Lord. He will still love everyone involved. He will still kindly bring good and provide a way through. I don't have to fight this battle - nor, I suspect, many of the battles I attempt - right now I just have to lift up the thing to God and be grateful.

And perhaps the thankfulness rather than the struggle will mean I am able to find the compassion and care that he is already working out for more people than I can yet begin to number.

So yes, God used the preacher in church this Sunday to say something that really hit me. And the preacher was me. We really do live in an age of miracles.  

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

supremely and ardently solicitous

As I take a holiday, it's good to catch up on a little light reading.

Taking in some back copies of the Harbinger (the journal of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion in the 1850s), as you do, I came across a piece eulogising a family member. Betty Smith was one of the daughters of my five-times great grandfather, John Green. He had 15 children.

I don't know who wrote this piece, but it's quite lovely to read - first, because although my family of that period were well-known both for being ardent church-goers and entrepreneurs (opening both coal mines and railways but having the decency always to list themselves simply as "farmers" on the census), it's another thing altogether actually to find someone from my family in a period journal as this. And second - the language is gloriously, languidly Victorian.

Her father died young, and her mother gave her "a strictly moral and religious training, followed by the best results". "For personal holiness she was supremely and ardently solicitous" (and who wouldn't want to be described in such a way?!), "She was a genuine specimen of a Christian", "an eminent pattern of guileless simplicity". I hope the photos I include of the article are sufficient for you to enjoy the whole piece - it's a terrific read.

Well. My family may not be mine owners any more; the money came and went with the coal. But it's rather humbling to find a record of a family member born almost two hundred years ago who "was strong in the faith and hope of 'the glorious gospel of the blessed God'". Some things are indeed eternal. I can only hope I too might leave such a story behind.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

songs of hope

So the General Synod refused to take note of the House of Bishops Report.

But this is just a line in a long song of hope. This report is now consigned to the filing cabinet of ecclesiastical history; it does not enter the sad canon of such reports that line up to make gay people the problem, or add to the litany of texts that can be used to keep gay people in our second-class place.

However, we have many more choruses to sing before we reach a final shout of joy. And I mean, a final shout of joy for the whole Church and for all people.

This report couldn't be part of that journey because it excluded some. Please, we don't get to continue the journey by excluding others. Music needs melody and harmony, tune and counterpoint, working together. The Church needs the whole music of God not just one part of it. This report could not be a part of the song of God's people because some of us couldn't sing it. The same is true if some others can't sing either.

Silence is part of music; but not when the mutes are taped to our faces and the score says "play loud!"

Well; what do I want now?

I've been asked that question by two bishops in the last week. One of them asked me this tonight. And I've given them both the same answer.

John Donne's phrase: One equal music.

I want a Church that sees we are all equally human. Equality isn't a fad or a bonus or an added-extra. It's an essential for all people. We don't just give it to those we like or to those we agree with. We give it to all people because they are people. And then we deal with the consequences - which we may not like. We don't search the Scriptures for reasons why we treat others differently, we take it as read that we are the same and apply the same standards to all unless there is overwhelming reason to make an exception. And if there is doubt, we give the benefit of the doubt because the equality of our standing before God brings us to that place. That grace. That glory.

And in the meantime, as the bishops decide what next, I implore them to sack all the lawyers! Inspire us with your vision of God. I can live with not getting what I want (for now - because what I want is to be as much a person as anyone else, and ultimately I don't see how you deny that Scripturally) as long as you inspire the Church of God - which this last report signally failed to do.

Every Bishop I know is an inspiring person. Be who you are. Sing your song. Sing us some hope. These are the songs we have for every person in our land. Sing them for us.

I promise, I'll take note when you do.

A Day Later
And, to keep my word: Archbishop Justin published this comment after the Synod vote. It's about as far from the tone of the original Report as it's possible to be, and has that edge of intention and inspiration that I am asking for. Thank you. Much more of the same, please.

Monday, January 30, 2017


As the world goes mad, we all have a responsibility to try to welcome back some sanity.

This happens in different ways, and we will all work out how we should act differently. I think that's fine. But sitting by the sidelines, flicking on the news and switching to an old episode of Friends instead is not an option.

Not anymore.

We need to be friends with people who hold different opinions to us - we need to care for them and see the humanity in those who disagree. We need to listen and talk and try to hold our own prejudices at bay just long enough so that a conversation might be slightly more civilised than a shouting match.

When generosity and kindness have left the room, the only thing to do is to invite them back in. Someone has to. It might as well be us.

This means we lose arguments in order to win people. People always matter more.

And yet...

And yet, there comes a moment when the world goes so mad that amongst all of this (which always, always applies) there come 'line in the sand' moments. Moments which define a time. Moments which we realise when they are happening, and which we will all look back on and for which we will all have to answer - what did you do then?

I hit such a personal moment a few years back when I realised that I had totally accepted for most of my life that I was a second-class human being because I was gay. Seeing that I had genuinely believed and lived this out clearly helped me change - and helped me as I worked through my beliefs as a Christian, and my understanding of the Scriptures. (Which, of course, have no room at all for such an idea. Those of you who don't like St Paul need to sort yourselves out; we have a lot to thank him for.) This drives me passionately, and when I see anyone treating anyone else as if they are somehow 'less', I will always side with the powerless party. Even if I don't like their cause.

Christ is the light that lightens every person; we are all made in God's image; these are foundational and precious truths. People are people.

Western Society is hitting a profound moment right now because powerful people are taking their moment to soft-pedal the equal humanity of all. They do it for all sorts of plausible reasons. Our safety, our economic well-being, our ability to define ourselves; but the message is the same. We are better; they are less; let's assert ourselves!

It's ungodly, it's unChristian, it's unBiblical, and it's inhumane. It's dehumanising.

So - what are we doing in the midst of these days? Flicking from the news to old episodes of 'Friends'? ("Seriously - they were on a break!")

Or talking to folk we disagree with? Listening to opinions we find hard, but they come from real people, so let's understand that and give all people the right to be people. All people. The ones we like and the ones we don't. And let's make sure that in winning this battle for the right for people to be people we don't simply adopt methods we would rail against in others; so no shouting down, no belittling.

Truth must out. Honesty must be our language. Generosity and kindness are our friends; we bring them into every room.

Those of us who are Christians know we follow a Lord who raises folk up, he doesn't grind them into the ground. For any reason. And we are his followers, with the responsibility to work as he does. No other way is acceptable.

For his command is really simple. Jesus says: "Love God. Love your neighbour. Oh, and by the way, love your enemy too. Any questions?"

Saturday, January 28, 2017


So on Holocaust Memorial Day 2017, two gifts:

In England, the House of Bishops published a report declaring that gay people shouldn't have all the same rights as straight people.

In the US, Donald Trump signed an executive order banning Muslims from entering that country.

Both of these are banner headlines, both of these statements lack nuance, but both of these things are essentially true.

And both of these things are appropriate gifts for Holocaust Memorial Day, which, after all, reminds us that discrimination and prejudice are timeless evils which we must always battle hard to defeat. They are not about other people in the past. They lie in our own souls, and we cannot afford to point the finger at anyone else.

This is today. This is now.

As Steve Turner said -
History repeats
Itself. Has to.
Nobody listens.