Thursday, April 25, 2013

being Luis Suarez is enough punishment in itself

I'm a Man United fan. So I really dislike Luis Suarez. But the fuss that has surrounded his 'bite' of Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic last weekend is ridiculous.

If you're not familiar with the story, Suarez, who plays for Liverpool, is supposed to have bitten Ivanovic, who plays for Chelsea, in last Sunday's 2-2 draw. Supposed to? Haven't I seen the footage?

Read this from The Guardian:
"Ivanovic was checked over for injuries by Chelsea after the game - there were none - and the Met police officer who visited the club's training ground also looked for bite marks or bruises. He too saw nothing. The officer, acting with police on Merseyside, asked Ivanovic whether he wanted to press charges. He did not."

Suarez has a screw loose. He's an animal. Unlikeable. A great footballer, not a great person. Even Liverpool fans must struggle to warm to him.

And yesterday, for this 'crime' of not biting Ivanovic he was banned for ten matches.

Brendan Rogers, Liverpool manager, has accused the FA of punishing "the man rather than the incident". Usually, as a United fan, I'd be thinking - typical Scouse whining.

But actually - Rogers is right.

Maybe Suarez meant to bite Ivanovic. Maybe he thought better of it in the nick of time. Maybe Ivanovic shrugged him off. Whatever, no bite happened. You can't punish someone for a thing they didn't quite do.

Well, I guess you can - but not like this, and not with any credibility. Not in a context where racism crimes in football get an 8 match or 4 match ban; where similar 9,10 or 11 week bans have come in the past only for breaking a bloke's jaw or for assaulting the referee.

It may be that more serious bans would generally be a better thing for the game; but that's not the decision here. The decision here is that Suarez gets a ban for biting a player. If he were playing rugby, it wouldn't even have been noticed. There wasn't even any bruising. Most of the other players on the pitch did more damage to each other in this match than Suarez did to Ivanovic. He got a ban for looking bad. And for being Luis Suarez.

Being Luis Suarez is enough punishment in itself some days. Listen carefully, you can hear bouncing; there's a kangaroo court in session. It has nothing to do with justice, and everything to do with self-righteousness.

Mind you, David Cameron disagrees with me - as a parent, not as Prime Minister. To be fair, I'm neither, so perhaps I'm always going to see this differently. Here's a tweet from BBC5Live this morning:
PM : Luis set "the most appalling example". Listen >

So - Should the Liverpool-loving Bishop of Bradford fight to free Gnasher? Can we suddenly move the goal posts on justice? Or is it enough that he's just a bad sort? There - lock him up; then he can't frighten the children anymore.

What do you think?

Family doesn't always mean Families

I read two articles yesterday about families and single people and how they do and don't work together in the Church.

Firstly, there was a piece in the Independent which said that 40% (or thereabouts) of single people in churches find that they feel 'inadequate', 'ignored', or 'not treated as family members' in their local congregations. Here's a key passage:

"People are incredibly loyal to their church. One of the key findings was that they felt embraced but whilst this should be something warm they said they often felt isolated and lonely. They say they are accepted but they are not included socially. They feel invisible and think about leaving."
"Accepted but not included socially." Goodness me.

The national statistics are interesting, and set a tough context in which to hear those words. More than 500,000 single person households have been created in the past decade with the number of single adults reaching 15.7m

David Pullinger, the researcher who analysed the data behind this report, added: "This is a time bomb for the church. All their natural contact points with the community tend to be with families - people coming forward for marriage, births and through Sunday school and church groups. They have to take seriously singles aged over 30 and think how they can reach out and embrace them and start to make it an attractive place for people to come."

Then I read this blog on friendship from JR Forasteros. He comments on the debunking of the proposed Friends sitcom reunion by co-creator Marta Kaufmann who said, "It’s not happening. Friends was about that time in your life when your friends are your family and once you have a family, there’s no need anymore."

Friends were your family until you grew up, became a real person, and had a real family. Then you didn't need friends anymore. JR talks about the devastating mistake that lies in those words, and how life is robbed by the loss of wider relationships - for married people, for single people, for whole communities.

The Church is a Family; but Family isn't always about families. Family is about belonging, and caring, and home and haven. It's about being accepted unconditionally and included without a second thought. Without a first thought. Just because.

I aimed in Pontypridd to grow a church that was all about Family. We had single people, children, adults, families, single parents, grandparents, widows, widowers, divorced people, young people, old people, women, men, those who came to everything and those who turned up once in a blue moon. Everyone was part of the Family.

There's a myth about churches, and about church leadership: the successful vicar is married with seven kids. Because he understands marriage. He cares about family. Let me say quite bluntly that these days, most people aren't married, but they still belong to the Family of God.

Relationships happen at all sorts of deep levels. Churches should foster every one of these. We should care for people as they start to think of how their adult lives will look, and as they shape those lives with relationships that work and fail, and as some commit in marriage and mutual love, and as some find that path not to be theirs. We should care for people who care for children, and for people who care for parents, and for people who have never been cared for. We should love the bereaved and the depressed and the sick and the unloveable every bit as much as our heroes and role models and pin-ups and those we follow on Twitter. We should love those whose families are perfect and picture-postcard and the envy of everyone else. We should love those who have lost, and those who never knew such a family. We should embrace the lonely; those who have always been lonely, and frankly couldn't be anything else if they tried; and those who find loneliness shocking and unfamiliar and unbearable. We should throw parties for new members as they come into this world; and for heart and soul members as they go on before us to the world to come.

And so what if this is an ideal that seldom really works out in real life? We should have ideals and then live with the demands they make on us and laugh and love in the face of the days when they are just damned impossible.

I'm a single bloke, and any time I have any responsibility in a church I will run a Family Church. I don't know how to do anything else. But if you think that means it's all about 'families', you haven't begun to understand what I'm about.

Friday, April 19, 2013


I had a great trip to the Bradford International Film Festival last weekend & saw this movie - Joss Whedon's take on Much Ado.

I love Brannagh's 1990s version; but this revision has a vitality & rhythm of its own. It matches the comedy & the pathos, the sadness and the joy with a visual wit and style. Much Ado has one of the best lines in all Shakespeare; the top notch ensemble cast delivers everything required of them of them brilliantly. Even Dogberry, surely up there with the unfunniest comedy characters ever written, really hits the mark.

Prejudice alert: normally US accents in Shakespeare plays are enough to make me pay to stay at home; but I was won over. This cast (and this director) just get it right. Oh that every movie this summer might sound so good, flow so well, tell such a story and move my heart so deeply.

It hits general release in June. I'll be seeking it out again. So should you.

And that 'best line' I love so much? Act 2, scene 1; Claudio's beautiful comment on having no words to match his feelings on learning that Hero accepts his love.

Silence is the perfectest herald of joy. I were but little happy if I could say how much. 

We'd all give our right arms to be able to write that stuff.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

sticks and stones

Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister when I was in my first year at grammar school. She left office in my first year at theological college.

Let's just think about that for a moment.

She was PM for almost all of my secondary school education. She was PM all through my Oxford undergraduate years. She was PM while I had my first job after college. She was PM when I moved to the US for six months, and was still PM when I returned. She was PM when I moved back to Oxford and started to train to be a vicar.

It's reasonable to say that that's a fairly formative part of my life.

Twenty three years and a whole world away from where we are now. At the end of the seventies, democracy was in a strange place. In school, we genuinely believed the nuclear bomb might fall. At any time. There was a feeling that some kind of revolution was not impossible. The traditional ruling classes were fleeing from the Unions. Some Unions seemed to want to destroy society every bit as much as those who were hell bent on destroying the Unions. Terrorism stalked the streets in balaclavas and bombs blew innocents to shreds as people fought for their causes through hunger strikes that had no picket lines.

We don't live in that country any more. Is this place perfect? Far from it. Is it better? 1979 is 34 years ago. 34 years before that was 1945. Let's get some perspective.

There is always a tendency to judge one age by the standards of the next. We look back and wonder how people ever did what they did, wore what they wore, thought what they thought. We judge.

So easily.

I happen to think that judgement is a particular curse of the internet age. Comments proliferate with anonymity. There is no responsibility on the webpages of the Guardian or the Independent or the Telegraph (left or right makes no difference) as people let rip and curse the thoughtful and the considered and rush to bring down the generous and the gracious. Let's have a 'Social Media' campaign to offend a grieving family and call Mrs T a Witch! Ding Dong!

Well, Art Garfunkel was no 1 in the charts with Bright Eyes on May 4th 1979. Vanilla Ice was there with Ice Ice Baby on November 28 1990. If the campaigners get their wish today, this is the company they unwittingly join.

Politicians are people. Prick them, they bleed. People go into public life for many reasons - but most of those I know well honestly work from a desire to make things better. They work from different priorities, different ideologies, different backgrounds and understandings of the world. As soon as they open their mouths, they get mis-reported. That's what the press do.

And their families suffer. They see too little of them. They get lonely. Sometimes bullied. Sometimes ostracised or burdened with false friends. Yet they serve on.

And at the end?

Christians should stop and think and understand something. We are to be a people of gratitude. A people who give what we would like to receive. A people of grace and generosity and of seeing and making the best. And where all we can see is hurt, then we are to be forgivers. We don't forgive because it didn't really matter, but because it did; and because when Jesus died, there were those then who threw a party and exulted in his death, and he prayed, 'Father, forgive'.

We honour those who serve, even when we disagree. Because we honour people. God judges. And he judges us as part of that deal.

I'm grateful for a towering political figure who stands over such a vital part of my life. I'm grateful for the memories of debates and conversations and for the years that happened and the pain and the opportunities of those days. I'm grateful we are in these days now, with these debates and opportunities and pains and challenges too. I'm grateful for friends who take the risk of public service. I honour them, and pray for them, and I hope that they might understand that if I sometimes disagree I will always love them and always be grateful for them and to them for what they do.

And I pray that the culture we have of judging without responsibility, of comments with anonymity and bile and no grace or humanity, might fade and be replaced by something kinder.

Sticks and stones and nuclear bombs didn't kill us in the Eighties after all. So neither will the names ultimately hurt us; but we can do better. People are people.

That's not about hagiography. It's just being a decent human being.