Give us back our NHS

http://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=http%3A%2F%2Fapi.soundcloud.com%2Ftracks%2F40360494&show_artwork=true

Scum who don’t know how to feel
They’re so rich they have to steal
Eyes all glazed from looking west
Give us back our NHS!

We won’t take rule for the rich
While the poorest feel the pinch.
There’s no mandate for this mess
Give us back our NHS!

Words by @Eithin and @LosTheSkald, music by me. Please sing it, teach it to people, make videos, write more verses, whatever. It’s under a CC BY-SA license: this means you can make derivative works as long as you give us attribution. There’s a pdf of a leadsheet here if you want to print it; I’ve done it in landscape format for ease of fitting two onto one A4 sheet if you have access to a photocopier or whatever.

Maybe it isn’t nice, maybe it’s just a bit beyond being “polite”.

They didn’t listen to nice.

Image from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:38_Degrees_NHS_reforms_billboard.jpg

It’s Up To Us to Change the Narrative

I was thinking the other morning about community size, economies of scale, and our perception of other people as human beings worthy of care and respect. In larger communities, where everyone doesn’t know everyone else, the media have quite a lot of power over how we see one another. And now Cameron’s government have passed the Welfare Reform Bill.

I don’t know whether the Daily Fail, the Sun and so on have always vilified the poorest and weakest in society, those reliant on others for help for whatever reason. I struggle to take such articles seriously, as I don’t quite understand how intelligent people can believe them. But I know that the advertisements about benefit fraud, which I started to notice under a Labour government, seemed to be a sign of something very wrong with the way we perceive one another and the way we speak and write of one another. I’d like to remedy that.

In my head, I’d like there to be some requirement for legislators to work with those who their laws will affect the most. I’d like those legislating about welfare reform to work with people who don’t have much money and with the disabled for a year before being allowed to make changes which will affect them. I’d like those who would further privatise the NHS (yes, further privatise — this has been going on for a long time, too) to think about what it might be like to need medical care and simply not be able to afford it, as well as looking at the cost-effectiveness of various systems.

But I think the propaganda may be so strong and so widespread that it can override even personal contact. Victim-blaming happens at all levels, and contact doesn’t always help.

As an example of that, for every GP I’ve had who has been helpful and supportive regarding my own health conditions, I’ve had another who doesn’t think there is anything physically wrong with me. This has led to delays in diagnosis which were mentally very distressing, not to mention physically risky. I remember being told my chronic pain was due to depression, and in the next appointment two weeks later being told I wasn’t “really depressed”. It turned out to be more complicated than that, of course.

Now, GPs aren’t stupid. They’ve been through medical school, and you do need quite a few brain cells to rub together to get through successfully! And they work with people. Yet they still do victim-blaming, even with an articulate patient with good levels of self-awareness. So I have to conclude that the problem we face isn’t one of intelligence or of contact.

I’m inclined to think that instead, the problem is one of narrative. A dominant narrative in the society in which I live is “You Make Your Own Life”. It’s an attractive narrative, because it seduces us into thinking that we can keep ourselves safe, that no matter how bad things get we’ll be OK because our efforts will be effective. And it’s a comfortable narrative for as long as health and wealth hold out, because it absolves us of the responsibility for the plight of anyone around us, even if we’re directly abusive toward them. After all, They Make Their Own Lives, too. And it’s slippery, this narrative, because we do seem to consciously choose our actions, we do think about consequences, some of our efforts do pay off. So obviously we must be in control of our circumstances!

But it’s wrong. You don’t Make Your Own Life. I don’t Make My Own Life. Not entirely, and the wealth of self-help literature out there might be just a small hint that none of us do.

Now, I don’t believe in full environmental determinism, and I do believe in free will. We always have a choice in how to respond to our situation. But we make this choice out of limited options of varying acceptability, and with limited foresight. Every choice includes risk. We don’t get to decide on our circumstances, our limitations, any more than we get to decide on our biological parents. And there is no isolation: all of our choices affect everyone else, and all of everyone else’s choices affect us, to some degree. We exist in a networked community with 7 billion interdependent active members, as well as countless previous members whose legacy still forms our environment. We don’t make our own circumstances, and our circumstances affect our choices. We make our own choices, but we don’t make our own life.

Yet this is the dominant narrative! The poor are poor, we’re told, because they don’t sufficiently desire wealth to take the necessary action to acquire it — so we must change the incentives by lowering their benefits to make them hungry for work. (Literally.) Never mind the economic reasons why this won’t actually help (people who don’t have enough to eat will spend less, not more, and the economy will suffer further as a result, with fewer jobs and lower productivity…), the poor are poor because they choose to be poor and therefore they deserve to be poor. The disabled are obviously only suffering disability, we’re told, because being disabled is a pretty good lifestyle compared to hard graft. So we must change their incentives by taking away what support they have and then they’ll learn how to “adapt” to their conditions. As for the sick and the elderly, they wouldn’t need so much medical care if they took proper care of themselves, so we’ll cut the NHS: that will encourage them to develop healthy habits!

Gentle readers, this is all preposterous. People don’t choose to be poor*: if you don’t have enough money to live on, getting enough of it is not trivial. People don’t choose to be disabled: in case you hadn’t noticed, blindness, deafness, wheelchair use, and long-term illnesses are things that happen to people, not lifestyle choices. People don’t choose to get sick: if they did, would anyone ever suffer from a common cold? People don’t choose to get old, despite what the beauty creams would have you believe, and nobody has the intention of aging badly.

But these atrocities are what the “You Make Your Own Life” narrative leads to. This narrative has made our society sick, so sick that we’re now actually doing the things in the last-but-one paragraph. Yes, I said “we”; whether or not they do so with our full support, the government act on our behalf.

I think we face two challenges here. One is to ensure that the vulnerable among us still receive care; this is going to be a massive effort, and I’m sure one at which we will fail in some cases, but we do have to try.

The second challenge is to find a better narrative and, somehow, make it supplant the one I’ve been talking about. We need a narrative that is more attractive than the idea that each of us can save ourselves, more comfortable than the idea that other people’s problems are nothing to do with us.

I haven’t found such a narrative outside of religion; the closest I come is the idea that we are all children of God and therefore worthy of respect and care and love regardless of our circumstances. But the “You Make Your Own Life” narrative is so pernicious that sometimes it actually invades religion, turning into “If you are ill/poor/old/disabled/unhappy it’s because you didn’t pray enough/love God enough/do what we say God wants.” Grace becomes the means by which we are wealthy and healthy and favoured in this world, rather than the mystery which prompts us to help others. Ugh! This caricature is not what we need. On a deeper level I think religion does have a lot to offer, but simply making a more religious society won’t solve the problem unless we can also purge religion of make-your-own-life-itis.

I believe that human beings have automatic worth, not based in ability or achievement or economic activity but personhood. I believe that human beings are interconnected and interdependent, each contributing to but not controlling our own wellbeing and that of everyone else on the planet. I believe that if anyone suffers at the hands of another, we are all much worse off, and when we work to help one another we all gain.

I believe it is urgently important that we make sure everyone knows this, especially those in power and those who will be in power in five or ten or fifty years. And because of the stickiness of the existing dominant narrative, it’s going to be an uphill battle to do it.

Now what?

*Edit 12/04/2012: It has been pointed out to me that some people, usually those who are members of a religious order, do choose to be poor, at least in terms of material possessions. If any of them would like to comment on what their overarching narrative is, and how we might replicate such a narrative in wider society, I would be grateful. I think many people today crave such simplicity, but mostly those who are well-off enough to choose what they would give up.

On great works of great faith

He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’

This isn’t an easy verse.

Why, why is our faith so small? I’ve never moved a mountain; certainly even things I find rather more realistic are sometimes very difficult. I want to believe that nothing is impossible, but the balance of evidence seems to indicate that much is.

This verse seems to be saying “believe harder, have more faith, and things will work. And if they don’t work, well, you just aren’t believing hard enough!”

But I think that’s not the point. I think that’s something we read into the text.

I think faith is a gift, rather than an obligation. Oh, I’d make a rubbish Calvinist, to be sure. I don’t get on with the idea of predestination, and the implications I think it has for free will. But the Spirit blows where it will, and some are given great faith and others none at all, and I think it is a mistake to tell ourselves that we can believe harder and somehow force ourselves to have greater faith. Rather, greater faith is something we pray for, and accept if it is granted. I’m reminded of Psalm 80 — turn us again, O Lord, and we shall be saved — and of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened or softened by God.

What is actually required? Are we asked to have faith? Yes, actually. And the great works of great faith are held out, carrot-like. But we aren’t told that we must have faith so great that it can move mountains. We’re simply told to have faith in Christ, as a sort of extension of our faith in God. I say if we’re listening, if we are giving these words any weight at all, that in itself is already an act of faith, however miniscule. So stop berating yourself for not having enough faith. You are a flawed and marvelous human being, a beloved child of God, and you do not have to be perfect.

What else are we told is required of us?

Love God. Love your neighbour as yourself. These two are so important that Jesus says they are the basis of the entire Law and Prophets — the Law and Prophets being the bulk of Jewish biblical canon at the time. I try to do them and I fail every single day. It’s that “flawed human being” thing again.

What else?

Eat, drink. Do this in remembrance of me. Gladly, though it isn’t always easy.

Pray in this way.
I can just about handle this one, if what Jesus means is the formulaic pattern of the Lord’s Prayer, which I have known so long I cannot remember learning it. But that business of forgiving others is quite sticky.

Judge not. This, too, is non-trivial. I can but try.

Love one another as I have loved you. That’s a tall order; it applies to more than just washing one another’s feet. He tells us to love one another as he loves us and then he goes and gets himself crucified! We’re meant to follow the example. If this isn’t daunting I don’t know what is.

And yet…I have seen countless examples of what I can only call sacrificial love. I have heard the joy of judgments overturned, reconsidered. I have felt the warmth of forgiveness rising out of prayer and I have tasted sweet living remembrance, whether you want to call it sacrament or memorial, body and blood or bread and wine.

Are not all of these mountains moved?

Friday Evensong at St Paul’s-in-the-Camp, 6.15 for 6.30pm.

EDIT, FRIDAY AFTERNOON: It turns out St Paul’s are having Evensong tonight after all, but didn’t tell anyone about it until late morning. While I don’t wish to compete with them, I think we should go ahead and have Evensong outside anyway.
END OF EDIT

On Friday we will have Evensong outside St Paul’s. While the Cathedral has said they will be open for worship, I don’t believe they are having Evensong tomorrow, so I want to go ahead with this. It’s the day for St Simon and St Jude, apostles.

Meet at 6.15pm for 6.30; outside M&S seems to be a reasonable place for it, although we may need to move (especially if there are enough of us to obstruct the walkway).

You can print a copy of the liturgy from here ON THE DAY or from here today (Thursday). Alternately you can follow along online using the same links on a smartphone or using one of the various Common Worship smartphone apps.

The really simple way to do it will be to bring a Book of Common Prayer, though. I have a small number of spares. The Psalm will be Psalm 119.1-16. The Old Testament reading will be 1 Maccabees 2.42-66 and the New Testament reading will be Jude 1-4,17-25.

I did not choose these readings; I want to use the same ones that will be on the Church of England website, for ease of letting others follow along at home or elsewhere. Readers for the readings will be assigned when we meet.

We will sing the psalm and canticles from the Parish Psalter. If you have a Parish Psalter please bring it, even if you don’t sing! These are harder to get hold of than the BCP and I only have a small number.

Unless a conductor volunteers in the next couple of hours, we will stick to the ferial responses. Please bring music to these if you have it; it’s hard to get hold of online and I only have a small number of copies. I will cantor if there are no clergy there who are willing/able to do so.

We will use the same hymns as on Sunday and Wednesday. If you want to print the words to these yourself they are available in .pdf format here. If you want to bring a hymnal to sing harmony I prefer New English Hymnal (note that some of the words are different).

If you don’t have any of these bits of pieces, you can still come! Really. You can look over my shoulder, or someone else’s, or participate in a more reflective manner.

It would be helpful to have a rough idea how many people will be coming along, so if you are planning on it please do leave a comment here. Anonymous comments are fine.

If there are enough singers we might do an anthem — same one as yesterday — but be aware that if numbers are low this will be cut.

Summary:
6.15 for 6.30pm outside M&S, St. Paul’s-in-the-Camp
Liturgy here on the day.
Bring BCP, Parish Psalter, and ferial responses if you have them.
Further updates from @artsyhonker and @FlashEvensong on Twitter.

Wednesday: St Paul’s-in-the-Camp Flashmob Evensong

On Wednesday we will have Evensong outside St Paul’s — unless the cathedral has opened for worship again, of course, in which case we may as well join them inside.

Meet at 5pm for 5.15; outside M&S seems to be a reasonable place for it, although we may need to move (especially if there are enough of us to obstruct the walkway).

You can print a copy of the liturgy from here ON THE DAY or from here today (Tuesday). Alternately you can follow along online using the same links on a smartphone or using one of the various Common Worship smartphone apps.

The really simple way to do it will be to bring a Book of Common Prayer, though. I have a small number of spares. The Psalm will be Psalm 119:145-176. The Old Testament reading will be @ Kings 9:1-16. The New Testament reading will be Acts 27:1-26. I did not choose these readings; I want to use the same ones that will be on the Church of England website, for ease of letting others follow along at home or elsewhere. Readers for the readings will be assigned when we meet.

We will sing the psalm and canticles from the Parish Psalter. If you have a Parish Psalter please bring it, even if you don’t sing! These are harder to get hold of than the BCP and I only have a small number. Ditto the music for the ferial responses. I will cantor if there are no clergy there who are willing/able to do so.

We will use the same hymns as on Sunday, mostly because I have about 20 hymn sheets and I don’t want to waste them. If you want to print the words to these yourself they are available in .pdf format here. If you want to bring a hymnal to sing harmony I prefer New English Hymnal (note that some of the words are different).

If you don’t have any of these bits of pieces, you can still come! Really. You can look over my shoulder, or someone else’s, or participate in a more reflective manner.

If you want to join the choir for the anthem please contact @FlashEvensong on Twitter, who is organising that bit. I’ve said that if we don’t have at least two strong readers per voice part it’s better not to do the anthem. There is a poll here for you to sign up.

It would be helpful to have a rough idea how many people will be coming along, so if you are planning on it please do leave a comment here (even if you aren’t planning to sing the anthem). Anonymous comments are fine.

Summary:
5 for 5.15pm outside M&S, St. Paul’s-in-the-Camp
Liturgy here on the day.
Bring BCP, Parish Psalter, and ferial responses if you have them.
Contact @FlashEvensong for choral anthem enquiries, poll here.

St Paul’s Evensong at OccupyLSX

I didn’t think, when I got up this morning, that I would somehow wind up leading a BCP Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral.

The cathedral has had Occupy LSX, a protest camp, on their doorstep for the past week. Last weekend the Canon Chancellor, Revd Dr Giles Fraser, told the police to leave the protesters alone. As the week has worn on and the tents have stayed up, the cathedral has been operating on a reduced schedule, and on Friday the Dean issued a statement saying it would have to close until further notice.

I have no strong criticism of the cathedral closing to sightseers; there is a point at which keeping things ticking over stops making economic sense, and though I am uncomfortable with entry fees for cathedrals I cannot condemn them without calling into question the legitimacy of thousands of smaller, parish-based fundraising efforts. Fair game.

But a cathedral is more than architecture and establishment. Cathedrals exist to serve the local community, as well as to support parish churches in their work. Their primary task is of public worship, and it is difficult to see how Occupy LSX are a significant threat to that. The supposed health and safety reasons for closure given by the cathedral haven’t, to my knowledge, been specified in a way that would allow the protesters to improve matters, and so things have come to a sort of impasse.

Practising the organ this morning I half-joked on Twitter about being tempted to turn up at St Paul’s and hold Evensong myself, if they weren’t letting people in for services. Then I went back to practising, it being one of those mornings where I felt like I had someone else’s fingers and feet, and the choir turned up and we rehearsed, and there was a service and afterwards tea and toast. I checked my phone before heading home and there seemed to be some positive response to the idea of an outdoor Evensong, and I began to think more seriously about it.

I’m accustomed to Evensong services of varying sizes. I knew that without any real idea of who was going to turn up, I wouldn’t want to plan anything too complicated.. but there definitely wasn’t time to select metrical psalms, so we’d have to do simple Anglican Chant (and hope for enough people who can make sense of it for it to work) or even just said psalms and canticles. I made a few more tentative tweets, putting out feelers to see who else might be interested. I tried to contact both St Paul’s, and Occupy LSX, through Twitter, and got no response — fair enough, both are busy organisations. But people who had been involved in the protest, and various clergy and churchy types online, seemed encouraging, so I decided to go for it.

At 12.12 I tweeted “Right. Evensong at @OccupyLSX outside St Pual’s, 3.45 for 4pm. Please bring Parish Psalter & BCP if you have them.” From there it was a matter of choosing hymns with words in the public domain and printing them, providing links to those and to the BCP liturgy for the day through the C of E website, making sure I had the readings and the Collect for the 21st Sunday after Trinity to hand, and the sort of low-grade terror at what I was doing that you might expect, complete with wildly beating heart and trembling hands. A lot of people were generally supportive but simply unable to get there due to geography or prior commitments. But people said they would come, and I turned up and they found me. Our numbers were small but mighty, and included an atheist and a Roman Catholic, as a typical Evensong at St Paul’s well might! Apparently there had been some sort of praying and singing not too long before my arrival, but the clergyman involved was busy being interviewed by someone with a camera and I had come over all shy, so we decided just to get on with it. We chose an almost-quiet spot outside M&S and did just that.

And it was good. Christ is made the sure foundation was our introit, chosen because I love it and it is a good length, and one or two people did join us as we sang. There was a bit of informal awkwardness going from one bit of the service to the next — I nearly forgot the psalm, think of it! — but we chanted psalms and canticles in something resembling unison, and the ferial responses were fairly straightforward. The readings were Ecclesiastes Chapters 11 and 12, and St Paul’s 2nd Letter to Timothy, Chapter 2, verses 1-7. One annoying photographer insisted on trying to ask us questions during the service, which I found a bit difficult — I tried to explain we weren’t finished, I think someone else went and talked to him and then came and joined us again. Instead of sermon (the epistle said it all with “The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits.”) or anthem we had Guide me, O thou great Jehovah and after the “Prayer for the Clergy and People” (rather apt I thought) and “A Prayer of St Chrysostom” and the Grace we sang O God, our help in ages past and went our respective ways — some of us to the pub, to slake the thirst after righteousness (I’ll get my coat), others off home or to other parts of the protest.

So, that was a pretty strange day. I wonder what tomorrow will bring?

Who do you say that I am?

Who is considered “Christian”? Why do any of us care?

Edward Green wrote an interesting post about the UCCF’s Doctrinal Basis, a sort of pseudo-creed which it seems is sometimes used as a litmus test of who is “in” and who is not at university Christian Unions.

Revd Green rightly points out that even the Catechism of the Catholic Church has a broader remit than that, stating that “All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.” I would agree that this is true, but I shy away from relying on the sacrament of baptism as a way of defining who is Christian, or rather, who is not.

The Salvation Army is one example of a non-sacramental movement that I would find difficult to classify as “not Christian”. There are also Christian Quakers, and Christian Unitarians, and all sorts of people from all walks of life who consider themselves Christian in the sense of trying to follow the way of Jesus of Nazareth regardless of not sharing creedal beliefs. There are Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses; I’ve lived with the former and been friends with the latter and I am not willing to call either group “not Christian” because of their divergences from the creed I give my heart to. Quite frankly, if someone believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster but also self-identifies as Christian I am willing to consider them Christian.

There are a few reasons I have this attitude. One is that I believe God is ultimately ineffable and limitless. This puts everyone in a bit of a pickle as it’s difficult to say anything meaningful about the nature of God without putting limits on God. If God is pink then God cannot be blue, but if God is limitless then God is both pink and blue. So while I am concerned with right belief, I try to sit lightly to it, if you will, remembering that we are all heretics.

Another reason is that the example Jesus set for us, if I am to believe scripture, points toward accepting others and treating them with respect and loving kindness regardless of their religious background. What is the point of my knowing what sort of Christian someone is? So often, this seems to be a case of trying not to associate with the “wrong” sort of people.

Sometimes this is out of a concern for sacramental purity: only baptised, confirmed Christians who have jumped through this hoop and that hoop are welcome at the Lord’s table, says the Church. We mustn’t “adulterate” the sacrament by allowing anyone who might have the wrong idea to try it for themselves, or by allowing anyone we aren’t quite sure about — sinners, gays, women — to preside at the Eucharist. I think this is incredibly sad; we are all heretics, remember? and I would say we are also all sinners! But Jesus ate with society’s outcasts and died as an outcast himself. He asked people to believe in him, but didn’t demand they believed before feeding them. I have better things to do than try to follow obscure rules about who I may or may not eat with.

Sometimes the purity concerns seem to be more along the lines of worry that someone will come along and infect us with wrong belief. I can understand this a little better. If you have a nice comforting belief and someone comes along and questions the premises, then of course it’s going to be unnerving. But scary and evil aren’t the same thing, and building isolating walls around our faith does two things: it puts the community at risk of stagnation and idiosyncracy, and it gives people leverage over us. Now, I do think that people in community should give one another power; we are accountable to each other, we live together on this interconnected planet where there is only one flesh we can wound. But I don’t think that power should extend as far as someone saying “Well, you aren’t really Christian if you believe that. You don’t belong here.”

At Greenbelt, I went to a talk by Mark Vernon on fundamentalisms and boundaries. He described the difference between bounded sets and centred sets by talking about ways of keeping herds of cattle together in Australia. There are basically two strategies: you can build a fence, or you can sink a well. Then in the rest of his talk he went on to talk about how some people seem to need boundaries, how without boundaries we can’t define what the church is or isn’t and cross those boundaries to reach — who? Other churches? the “unchurched”? I don’t quite remember, to be honest, because for the rest of the talk I was thinking “OK, but what happens if we just sink a well?”

Boundaries make us feel safe, right enough, whether that’s to do with purity of thought or purity of sacrament. It’s natural enough to want to associate with the “right” kind of people. But dividing the sheep and the goats by doctrinal fences isn’t, in the end, for us to do. The wheat and tares are not for us to sort out.

Instead we are told “by their fruits ye shall know them” and “love your neighbour as yourself”. I hope that if people classify me as Christian it is not because I go to church to pray, or because I regularly receive Communion, or because I happen to agree with them on matters of doctrine or liturgy. When someone tells me that they are Christian, I consider it a statement of intent, not a statement of adherence to some orthodoxy or another. I am not a theologian and some would say I lack the education to make such assumptions. Nevertheless, I hope that if people classify me as Christian, it is because of my attempts, however frail or flawed the results might be, to live in the world as an example of God’s love for the world.