Conservative success!

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In the 1997 General Election, the UK Conservative Party lost all its Scottish seats, and with the creation of devolved parliament in Edinburgh (where I now live), it seemed that north of the border, the Conservatives were a dead ‘brand’. As recently as 2011 they had only 17 seats in the Scottish Parliament, and with the Scottish nationalists winning an unprecedented second term with a majority of seats (something hard to get under the electoral system here), it seemed that the country was headed toward a one party state and possible independence. Then something happened – or rather someone happened – a 5 foot 3 bundle of energy called Ruth Davidson became leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. She seemed, to put it mildly, an unlikely leader for the Scottish Unionists.

She comes from a working-class background, got to University, went into the media and then, so it seemed, committed career suicide by taking up a career as a Tory politician in the most viscerally anti-Tory part of the UK. Before she became leader there was some doubt as to how Tory voters – and others – would react to the fact that she was both openly gay and a practicing Christian? The short answer was delivered yesterday when the elections saw her win a seat in Edinburgh (I voted for her) and her party become the second largest in the Scottish Parliament. So, what went right?

We often say here that personality matters. Well, Ruth Davidson is a former territorial army officer, she broke her back in her twenties and had to learn to walk again – she’s not really going to be phased by political insults. She’s a bundle of energy, she’s so obviously sincere in her support for the Union that she’s been able to win support from those who are not natural Tory voters but want to save the Union and do not trust the Labour Party (which did dismally here) to do so. Labour, in an attempt to win some nationalist votes, at least sent signals it might be willing to do deals on the subject. No doubt there were those offering the save advice to Ms Davidson, but she rejected that line and went with what she believed.

There’s a lesson here for the Conservatives south of the border. Widely seen as dominated by upper-class public school boys who have no idea how the rest of us live, their candidate for the London Mayoralty, the multi-millionaire Zac Goldsmith, was beaten into a cocked hat by the Muslim son of a Pakistani bus driver, Sadiq Khan, a Labour MP who sounded as though he actually lived in London in the way most ordinary people do. Boris Johnson, another public schoolboy, had the charisma to be able to appeal across the political divide, and who knows, may become Prime Minister when Cameron stands down.

But up here, the dynamism of Ruth Davidson offers another option – a down to earth figure who can appeal to people across the political spectrum and whose obvious sincerity and connectedness to reality makes her a popular figure. Boris might hope she stays here – we certainly do.

Brexit?

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As this blog is offering the ‘view from the Anglosphere’, I thought I’d say something about being back of the line, or is that queue? That, of course, is a reference to the comment from POTUS Obama that were the UK to vote to leave the EU we’d be back of the line in terms of a trade deal. Perhaps he hasn’t noticed that the USA sells us far more stuff than we sell you guys, and perhaps, being so distantly acquainted with economic realities, he feels it won’t much matter – not doubt yet more goods from China can fill the gap? Others better qualified than I have made the point that the UK wasn’t back of any line at D Day or in Desert Storm, but what’s honour when you’re a politician? Like Falstaff, Obama would probably say ‘who has it, he who died a Thursday’.

It’s a shame he took that tone, and it’s a shame that the tone of the debate over Britain’s future in the EU is one of smear and counter-smear and the stirring up of fear. The fact is no one can know what the effect of the UK leaving the EU would be, but it seems perverse to imagine it will have little effect, and so far as I can follow the argument of those who want to leave (Brexiteers) it amounts to saying that in a few years we’d have trade deals with the EU and the USA as good as we have now – gee, thank guys, so why leave?

The leave argument amounts to an emotional one – we’d get sovereignty back. But who, in this global economy has complete sovereignty – North Korea perhaps? The US, by the sheer size and scale of its economy is closer than most, but as the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world, the UK does not begin to compare with that strength. Sure, it could cut deals, but there will be a cost – there always is. The idea that the EU would seek to do us down economically seems a bit illusory – they do more trade with us than we do with them, but then so does the idea that they’d give us the same deal as they do now without our paying in what we pay in now. In short, I think the economic arguments are probably not decisive – except for one aspect – is this the time to give some kind of adverse shock to the global economy?

So it is, in the end, about sovereignty. But we all share aspects of sovereignty now. We can’t run the UK as we could in the mid twentieth century – the world has changed. The EU is, it is true, not the speediest organisation, but it is one of the world’s largest trading blocs, and it has a political as well as an economic aspect to it. It has helped entrench democracy in countries like Spain, Portugal, and even (despite the obvious problems) Greece, which have had, to put it mildly, chequered histories. It has also managed to include some nations formerly in the Soviet bloc. It’s far from perfect, but then as I look at the people running my country now, and those vying to, I’m not sure that they are any better.

Then, for me as a Welsh-born woman living now in Scotland, there is the little matter of the United Kingdom. The land of my birth, Wales, looks as though it is going to vote to remain in, and Scotland is certainly going to do so. If England votes to leave, the Union is bound to unravel. The Scots and the Welsh, and perhaps the Ulstermen, will want to stay ‘in’ and will want to if England leaves. The mess that would follow does not bear thinking about.

The small c conservative position seems to me to be to vote to remain in, with all the problems it is better than the alternative – so this woman of Welsh-German stock living in Scotland is voting to remain in the EU.

Feed my sheep?

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Jesus spoke about how when we ignore the hungry and the homeless and the dispossessed, we ignore him. His followers hadn’t cottoned on, and as so often, he ended up having to explain to them. In becoming man, he saved us, and we are all made new in him – and have a common bond. This was one of the most powerful things about early Christianity. At a time when everyone made distinctions – ‘Jew’ or ‘Gentile’, ‘Roman’ or ‘Barbarian’, as well as the ones we’re still familiar with – rich and poor, insider and outsider – Christians were all brothers and sisters, and one of the things which impressed the Pagan society within which it was situated was the way in which it considered those who were of no account – widows and orphans – as mattering. They mattered because like the rest of us they are made in the image of Christ – and in helping them, we help Christ.

Over here, during the twentieth century, the State took on many of the philanthropic functions previously carried on by voluntary organisations, not least the churches. But over the past decade or more, as the over-reach of the State becomes apparent because of economic crises, the churches have sort of begun to insert themselves into some of the gaps. So, in terms of the refugee crisis which you may have heard of, with thousands on thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing the crises which have engulfed their countries, our Government has tended to give some funding to the churches and to other groups and told us to get on with it.

That’s how I find myself helping a couple of nights a week, and one Saturday a month, at a help centre for refugees. We serve food, we help find accommodation and schooling, and we put them in touch with others who can provide professional help such as psychiatric care. Though we have some funding from the local authorities via the Government, much of what we spend comes from donations, and the generosity of people is humbling. So, too, are the stories we hear.

I’m in no position to take sides – except that of the people we are trying to help. When you hear what these people have been through, your heart breaks – and there but for the Grace of God we all go. Most of the people I meet were, until a few years back, middle-class professionals, teachers, doctors, lawyers, who suddenly found their lives destroyed by the civil war in Syria. If anyone had told them, five years ago, they’d be eking out an existence in a bedsit in a foreign country depending on handouts, they would not have believed you – but that is just where they are now. But, once they are in a stable place, they help us to help others coming after them.

It’s not always easy. Some of the men in particular clearly feel humiliated in having to take charity, and some of them don’t much like being helped by women. It would be easy to get irritated by that, but what’s the point?  True charity is not setting conditions on what you do such as expecting those you help to be grateful in the way we would express gratitude. A female friend expressed some crossness that I was covering my hair when I go to help, but I know, from talking to many of the women, that they feel more comfortable when their men aren’t unsettled. Some will think this a form of appeasement of Muslims, but I left out one detail – most of those we are helping are Christian refugees. In their churches women and men sit on opposite sides of the aisle, and the women always cover their hair. In following their custom, we’re simply making them feel comfortable – it is an act of courtesy, acknowledging that even if they are homeless refugees totally dependant on our charity, they are men and women from a culture which we can show some respect to.

They say that you shouldn’t judge someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes, and having shared some time and space with these men, women and children, all I can say is that it isn’t hard to see them as brothers and sisters. What is heartening is to see how they respond, and how a comradeship grows between us. As one women with whom I prayed recently said to me: ‘You are good sister to me, and if needed, I would be to you, we are one in Jesus Christ.’ Yes, I thought, we are, and I believe you would be if the boot was on the other foot.

Surviving the storm

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Here is the Western world there is a palpable sense that things aren’t right – really aren’t right. Here in Europe we are seeing great waves of immigration from the Middle East and North Africa – millions of poor people fleeing their war-shattered homes and looking for safety. Sure, there are some among them who have other motives, but what group of people contained only the good and the ugly but not the bad? It’s easy to demonise refugees, but I doubt any of them had anything to do with launching the Iraq war which destabilised the region and created the conditions which have led us here; I doubt any of them had anything to do with the running of British or American foreign policy over the last couple of decades. A ‘war on terrorism’ President Bush said – how’s that working out? Over here in Europe we’ve a lot more of it now than we had then. If this is how we fight a war we may need to rethink.

Interesting that it should be Putin, who gets a (deserved) bad press in the West, who seems to have helped put Assad in a position to retake Palmyra. I never noticed any flowers or hashtags or marches of solidarity – just military hardware and violence in the old fashioned ‘blood and iron’ way. Seems as though ISIS can stand any number of marches and flowers, but not so much real air strikes; makes you wonder what we’ve been doing? Maybe we can’t do this any more? Public opinion wouldn’t like it; Putin doesn’t worry about public opinion, but his public do like it. Have we reached the stage that our own values have hobbled us? I’d hate to think that, but if you compare Putin’s record against ISIS with ours, it’s hard to say we’ve been very effective.

From over here, it looks as though this is what happens when the USA decides to teach the world to sing rather than police it. I can’t speak, obviously for the US, but over here people are worried, and the recent attacks in Brussels are not helping. It’s easy to stir up hate when there is fear. It’s easy to say ‘not our problem’, but Christians have a duty to help the poor and the dispossessed – it isn’t our job to ask whether this is a ‘deserving’ poor person before we give to charity. But how do we combine that duty with one of care and security for all of those already in the country? That’s the hard one for us. It would be easy to call for firm action, but when we look what the firm action in response to 9/11 got us we have, surely to ask questions about just how intelligent our intelligence services are?

As I write, Assad’s men are in Palmyra. These were the forces our leaders wished to destroy two years ago before the Commons and Congress forced them to back down. It’s hard to see what else would have achieved this result. If the US won’t be the world’s policeman, and the world doesn’t want to learn to sing in perfect harmony, perhaps better leave it to Putin and those who are not afraid to use force when it counts?

He’s alive

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Dolly Parton’s performance of Don Fancisco’s “He’s alive” is my all-time favourite modern worship song – I can’t listen without ending up crying – ‘He’s alive and I’m forgiven Heaven’s gates are open wide!’ Alleluia – he is Risen! The song takes us back to that first morning, and I want to follow Mary Magdalene.

Imagine, if you will, the consternation – the stone had been rolled away, and the guards seemed not to be there. When she got to the tomb Mary discovered it was unoccupied; at that moment we receive the piece of information which launched Christianity and keeps it vital – He was not there. She ran back to tell the others – and then it was the turn of Peter and John – with the young man outpacing the older, but waiting for him before they went in to see the truth.

We can’t piece together the exact chronology, but whilst they rushed back, Mary lingered, as is the way of women, especially when they have lost someone they loved; she’d set out expecting to anoint the dead Jesus, and now she was at a loss. What could have happened – where was he? As she wept she saw two figures in white who asked her why she was crying – she told them. She turned and saw a man she took to be the gardener, and she asked if he knew. Like everyone to come in the next few days, she did not recognise him, but when she beard his voice she marvelled – it was him, there was no doubt – ‘Rabboni’ she said, and tried to cling to him – but he told her not to, and asked her to go tell the others.

This is what St John tells us, and that one word -“rabboni”, the Aramaic form of ‘rabbi’ locates us firmly in truth – she saw and she bore witness, and that witness is truth. How amazing! In Jewish law the unsupported testimony of a woman was worth nothing – and yet it was this one woman whom Jesus sent to tell the men of the greatest truth of all – that He was alive!

One of the many wonderful things about the song is that it allows us to enter, imaginatively, into that world at that moment – the bewilderment, the tears, the joy and the sheer delight of the Redemption.

The day had begun in darkness and in mourning, before descending into a kind of confused chaos where no one knew what to do or what was what. Peter and John dashed around, but did not stay – they were men of action. It was Mary who stayed, and it was her love for the Lord which made her the first witness to the Good News which would advance even to the ends of the earth. They do, indeed serve, those who stop and wait on God’s pleasure.

And so it was that all the things the wise men of Jerusalem said would come to pass, did not. Of course, they put it around that the body had been stolen, what else could they do? But men and women do not turn from frightened fugitives to fearless evangelists because they have rescued a decaying corpse – the disciples were empowered by the Risen Lord – and, as we enter into the fullness of the Easter joy, let us be so inspired by that great thought – ‘he’s Alive!’

 

 

Endings and beginnings

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Easter Saturday can be a bit of an odd day for many of us – sure, you can do evening service and ‘get it over with’ – and some Catholic Vigil Masses can be wonderfully evocative, but for most of us it’s the day between the two big ones for Christians – the sorrow of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday. It’s a day of endings, and beginnings.

This is another ‘silent night’. The disciples are in hiding and in shock. Peter, still grieving for his friend, is tormented by his cowardice in denying him; Mary, his mother, still mourning her son, and Jerusalem is quiet – the Roman curfew sees to that. Outside the tomb Roman soldiers stand guard – there will be no stealing the body from the tomb and claiming that ‘he rose again’. The Romans did cruelty well, and they did violent death for rebels even better; you didn’t challenge Rome was the message – the coda being that if you did, you died in pain and shame. It wouldn’t be many years more before the Jews of Jerusalem learnt that truth the very hard way.

The Nicene Creed tells us that Jesus ‘descended into hell’, where he saved the souls trapped there. There’s a lot of speculation about what the medievals called ‘the harrowing of hell’, but we’re told so little  1 Peter 3:19 is all we have – and since learned theologians have disagreed on what it means, I’m not venturing an opinion – but it’s all we have to tell us what happened – until what we know happened, happened – so to speak.

The faithful Jews carried on waiting for the Messiah, and the followers of Jesus looked destined to be absorbed back into the mainstream of Judaism; somewhere a young man called Saul, from Tarsus, slept, no doubt content that heresy had been stamped out. The old order was reasserting itself whilst the world slept. In a few days time no one would talk about ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, and in a few months, few would remember him, and those who did would wonder what it had all been for. There would, no doubt, be other disturbers of the peace, but the Romans would deal with those. It was time to relax, or would be in a day or two – good job someone had put those guards on the tomb.

It was, perhaps, those men who first knew that things were not ending, but beginning. Before dawn, the women who had followed Jesus crept out to finish the job the Sabbath had prevented them from completing – anointing his body properly. It was dark, they felt their way, young Mary of Magdala got there first. They’d wondered about how to access the tomb – that stone was heavy, but perhaps they could sweet talk the Romans into helping them. But the stone was not there, and the guards were is disarray – something had happened, something was wrong … or was it?

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