Make a change

In August 2016 American footballer Colin Kaepernick first ‘took the knee’; in 2006 Tarana Burke began using the ‘Me Too’ phrase which went viral in 2017 following actress Alyssa Milano’s stand against sexual harassment, in July 2017 an outcry followed the publication of a report showing that two thirds of the highest earners at the BBC were men.

High profile people grab attention and shape an agenda.

These have been important factors in addressing injustice yet at the same time they raise uncomfortable questions about how we highlight issues and fashion positive change.

How do you change things for the better? How important is it for individuals to take a stand? How do you do this if you aren’t famous?

It is great that celebrities and the wealthy make a stand and raise profile (and indeed such people do face difficult moments),  but it is important that injustice is not tolerated at any level of society – top, middle or bottom. But if you are at the bottom few people take note if you take the knee in public, or post a protest on twitter, or when your minimum wage salary is less than your male counterpart. If you are at the bottom of the pile you will usually have complicating factors of lack of money, poor employment, difficult house to compound the challenges.

This is not to criticise the high profile who make a stand, because I know that in most case they are connected with a far-reaching movement. I do recognise that maybe it needs such people to seize the agenda. But it is not to the credit of society that this has become the norm for getting attention. We should remember that for the wealthy and connected their injustices are often offset by access to power and resources not available to the countless people who bear similar burdens at the bottom of the pile.

Here’s another way of change – philanthropy. As Andrew Carnegie, the philanthropist of the 19th and early 20th century wrote his aim was “To promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world” and “to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding.” He concluded “he who dies rich dies disgraced.” A pattern mirrored by fellow Scot of the same period Angela Burdett Coutts. This is a heritage followed by those like Bill Gates and J.K. Rowling.

For all its benefits this philanthropy created it is basically about patronage of these few people and their legacy of charitable foundations.

The challenge is to secure universal access and opportunity and to secure accepted norms of justice, to stop help being the luck of those being in the right place and the right time. This is where laws and government come in. This is where widespread movements bringing together those across society are vital. This shows the importance of broad-based collaboration as we recognise the complexities of our challenges but maintain a will for transformation.

A Christian perspective on such matters varies. Some Christians fight shy of any campaigning, while others make it their all. Some follow Christian only action, whilst others seek to find common cause across society.

For Christians, it is helpful to note that God laid down power and privilege to engender the most radical of changes (take a look at Philippians 2). It is also worth noticing that the idea of the Kingdom of God is about a radical new norm, a new encompassing world order now and forever.

It is good to have Kaepernick, Milano and senior female BBC staff taking a lead, it is encouraging to note by organisations like Nike, Holywood institutions and the BBC are taking things on board. We benefit from the Rowlings and Gates of this world. Yet for all their value change is about a deeper, broader and more rooted process.

Graham Brownlee, September 2018

A Pentecost Letter to Peter

Peter, I know you as a fisherman follower of Jesus. Speaking out what everyone else was thinking, promising what you could not deliver, but with a faith to keep going. The risk taker still standing.

I am in your stead as a Christian – a follower of Jesus of Nazareth.

In your stead as a preacher, having just heard one of your sermons. I write to you at Pentecost, the day you preached your first sermon. The day I saw you in a new light – as the clear interpreter of what was happening.

Always focused upon Jesus Christ, memorably describing what has and is happening. Not so much teaching as testimony. The one person shall pass on to another. Explaining what has taken place, pointing to what is unfolding. I would love to preach more like that. To say – “they are not drunk, but this is a move of the Spirit.”

You were the rock on which a church was built. I don’t claim to be in your stead in that way – I’m simply another brick in the wall.

Today we remember –

Your community – changed from a small band anxious and uncertain to a movement charged with courage. Filled with life giving breath that gave voice and with a fire to catch the world.

Your people – before you preached you could all be described as Galileans and afterwards the epithet would never suffice.

Peter, may I be so bold to speak of what we have in common. We in our church are not just remembering – it is happening among us.

Sometimes, I think that the community I serve can slip into becoming a huddle, tucked away from a fast changing and harsh world. But there is a wind of the Spirit among us. We are familiar when it is tongues and interpretations, gifts and prophecy. We cherish more of that. But this move is different. It is a bit of a babble, it is moving us out into the streets and communities, in campaigns and cafes.

Peter like you I spy many more languages, cultures and races coming within earshot, this is not the competitive scramble of Babel, the imperial exporting of one culture to another. This is the coming of nations and cultures together, hearing, understanding and relating together. This too is happening in our church.

Peter, I have the luxury of being able to read the rest of your story – of the deacons like Stephen and Philip, and converts like Cornelius, Pricilla, Aquila and Lydia, of the later Apostle Paul and the generous benefactor Barnabas.

So, I observe that you preached amid chaos. In untidy and unpredictable times. It comes across as exciting but unplanned. Peter, maybe I should tell my church that we are living in similar times. We don’t have a detailed plan – save Jesus Christ, the moving of the Spirit and our values of courage, hospitality and hope. Dare I tell my church that God is making these times untidy and blowing a Godly chaos when we like things in order?

Peter, I have read of the struggles that you had to come to terms with many Gentile converts, and the raising up of new and different leaders. In our scriptures which record your story, I have read of your commitment to this, but also when you made mistakes and lost your nerve. Peter, as one preacher and leader to another – I say me too. Having read the whole story in theory it is simple but in practice it is so complex. To take what we have in and apply to ever changing new context. I know that as a minister, father, husband and friend. I wonder how you felt when Paul became more and you less, how you engaged what was unfolding even though you hadn’t worked it all out? I am learning through joys and mistakes of how to partner more and I think to follow your path of working with and genuinely welcoming the new. Peter, I guess your spirit-filled self was still expressed through your whole character. I can identify with that.

So the band of you, your brother Andrew, of James and John, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna… became Stephen, Philip, Barnabas, Silas, Paul, Lydia, Pricilla and Aquila. Different people being raised up in new and unexpected ways. People called to one role and then doing another. Today we are choosing deacons and we have been searching for a youth leader. The same unexpected ways are emerging among us. I am beginning to see trusted new people exercising ministry already. Maybe we should call them out and give them recognition and space.

Peter, in our wider church we have lost sight of being the movement you described so we have hived off the ground breaking as emerging church and its leaders as pioneers. But isn’t an emerging church simply one in which God is stirring and moving and pioneers simply ministers who describe and explain what is taking place and equip the people. On this day Peter, I get it – every living church is on the move and every preacher, minister and leader a pioneer. As one preacher to another I have learnt from you on this day that a better Christ shaped world is possible if we dream and speak it here and now, it must and will first take shape in us, it will require more of us but it is born of the wind and fire of the Spirit.

Peter, I wonder what you would have preached if we had you with us at Moortown today? I guess we know, you would have described what you saw happening and connected it with Jesus. You would preach in such a way that urges people to respond and question – what must we do to be saved? You would have reached out to the lost and not just have conversations in church.

Graham Brownlee, 20th May 2017

(The text of a message given on Pentecost Sunday)

Beware of Bromance

In recent weeks, as the blossom has flowered we have witnessed moments of tactile affection between some male leaders. At the end of April Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron appeared not to be able to keep their hands off each other when they met at the White House. A couple of days later, North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un and South Korean President Moon Jae embraced and shared tea.

Are we witnessing an outbreak of bromance among world leaders? Well a day later Macron offer a sharp critique of current US policy to both houses of Congress and weeks later events on the Korean peninsula show that lasting peace is still difficult to find.

It is certainly true that leaders do need to forge personal trust if they are to come together in any meaningful and fruitful way. So, a touch of bromance is a positive thing, but beware bromance if it is just those in power schmoozing in ways that don’t foster peace, justice and hope. The cosy bonding is palatable only if it fosters better hope between all their peoples.

We think of this in the season of Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity for the Christian church. There is a connection. For Christ who was humbled among then to be raised and ascended reminds us about the nature and orientation of leadership. And that this is for all peoples of the earth and is a partnership in community. Now that puts bromance in context!

May the encounters of world leaders spread community and hope for all, the marginalised and across the boundaries that divide us.

Then bromance will mean something.

Graham Brownlee, May 2018

F word thoughts – more than acceptance and a little bit of Kielty

The Forgiveness Project exhibition has concluded at Moortown Baptist Church. It added a dimension to our Easter experience. The stories and pictures were profound and have a deep effect on many.

The words of Jo Berry (daughter of Sir Anthony Berry MP, who was killed in the IRA Brighton bombing) stand out for me. “Now I don’t talk about forgiveness. To say ‘I forgive you’ is almost condescending. It locks you into an ‘us and them’ scenario keeping me right and you wrong. That attitude won’t change anything. But I can experience empathy, and in that moment there is no judgment.” IRA activist Patrick Magee, responsible for Jo’s father’s death, responds – “It’s rare to meet someone as gracious and open as Jo. She’s come a long way in her journey to understanding; in fact, she has come more than half way to meet me.”

We should take care in connecting a theology of forgiveness to these words or linking them to Easter. It seems that forgiveness is at one and the same time and confrontation and a moving forward. To forgive means to name a wrong and a person or institution that needs forgiving. Forgiveness makes a judgment and then seeks to reconcile. Jo Berry sees this and the risk of that act of forgiving setting us apart.

Jo Berry and Patrick Magee are pictured together above.

As a result of this many of us cannot get to the place where we name things and speak forgiveness to another. Rather we show as much love as we can, and we offer acceptance to another. Jo describes that as empathy. This keeps relationship open and is wise and noble but stops short of forgiveness and reconciliation. I honour those of us who practice such empathy, but I recognise that this an ongoing commitment that stops short of forgiveness.

So we discover that forgiveness is a risk. In offering forgiveness, we can make matters worse and lose what we have of a relationship. I believe that this is just such a risk that God was taking in Christ. To meet us more than half way and then confront things that need forgiving in a costly way.

So Christ died! His resurrection showed that this paid off. The cost and possibility of failure was real. It is not that Christ jettisoned acceptance and love, but that Christ chose to add forgiveness to them. In order that God could move beyond empathy to reconciliation.

This is the miraculous hope and truth of Easter. It is dangerous and risky stuff.

In the meantime, many of us travel with acceptance and love on a lifelong journey towards forgiveness. The Easter story tells us that we don’t live in vain. This is a truth and a story for our time. It echoed again as I watched Patrick Kielty’s excellent BBC documentary on Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement 20 years on. In it Kielty (right) powerfully explores acceptance, forgiveness and moving on – looking at how difficult and essential these things are. Well worth a watch.

Graham Brownlee, April 2018

When do I grow up?

Becoming an adult means…. “being responsible… doing what you want… going to clubs… not taking your washing home to your mum etc.etc. When you have kids, at 12 or 13, when you think you know everything, when you get a job, when you start going to college… people live their lives a lot longer before you get married.”

Recent studies show that adolescence now lasts from age 10 to 24.

There are reasons for this: 
Young people continue in education longer
Parenthood and marriage are being delayed
Because of the degree of change in society and the changes in career patterns young people settle much later into stable patterns of life and work.

This means that very few young people find a settled pattern of work and home life at 18 and are likely to be searching for this through their 20s. Then once you get a job and find a career research says that you are unlikely to follow that for more than 10 years. People are increasingly changing career once or twice, or more in adult life.

There is a developmental lesson in all this – people are still forming their spiritual, social and personal identities well into their 20s. In many way people take on adult roles and responsibilities later.

Then we look at childhood studies tell us that adolescence begins younger too – from the age of 10. If you couple these physiological changes with earlier exposure to social media, we see that children/ young people are socially interconnected and physically changing somewhat younger.

In the light of this maybe we (adults over 40) should change our thinking and practice in the following ways:
We should recognise that the formation of identity happens over a longer period and is not done and dusted by 18.
We should recognise that young people aged 10 – 30 are creative and interconnected people and avoid being frustrated by their slower formation or patronising them as people who just can’t grow up and take responsibility.
We should embrace the multiple changes of career and patterns of work through adult life and enable people to think through the choices, vulnerability and creative opportunities this presents.

In Christian organisations and churches, we should consider the following:
We may reconsider the tight definition of youth work away from working with 11-18s. We should explore work among 14s to 30s.
We should take greater note of the transition period experienced by children between the ages of 10 and 14, which straddles school structures (unless you remember the days of middle schools).
Because of the diversity of young people and the degree of formation and change we should be much more flexible and collaborative with the young people we work with.

Finally, if life in today’s society is much more about ongoing formation, finding space and change then we should relax and not expect all life long commitments and decisions to be signed and sealed before someone reaches 18. We should rightly encourage people to choose their faith direction before 18 but some will not. Some will make a choice and then revisit it later, others will make formative choices later. Both are fine.

The Bible talks in the following way:
11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13: 11 – 13 (NRSV)

Maybe we need a little less of over 40s assumptions and anxiety and a touch for faith, hope and love.
In any case.
Becoming adult – can you put an age on it?

Graham Brownlee, February 2018

Baptists, equality and being radical

This week has brought the 100th anniversary of the granting of votes for women with the passing of the Representation of the People Act. But a century on campaigns continue to address gender inequality.

Now many Christians are at the forefront of arguing for equality, whilst some hold to male headship and others to more nuanced complementary (equal but different because that’s the way we are) viewpoint. I write as a Baptist, and if I am true to being a Baptist I have to go for equality. Baptists believe that authority is held by Jesus Christ alone and worked out by believers in committed relationships together. As a church is made up of women and men, young and old, different races – we hold that these believers together are competent and responsible to care, discern, hold to account, take on roles and decide.

In one of our most memorable recent meetings at Moortown Baptist 120 people were together talking, listening and discerning God’s will. Children, adults, male, female, black and white all spoke and were heard.
On this centenary, I acknowledge and celebrate that is the way forward – not just as a theoretical point but in decision making, opportunity, protection of the law, taking on roles, and bringing respect.
I read some of the arguments made, put just over 100 years ago, against giving women the vote:

  • Women were creatures of impulse and emotion, incapable of making a sound political decision
  • Women’s participation in politics would extinguish chivalry
  • If women became involved in politics, they would stop marrying, and having children, and the human race would die out
  • A woman’s place was in the home
  • Men and women had different spheres
  • Women were already represented by their husbands
  • Women did not fight in wars to defend their country
  • It would be dangerous to change a system that worked
  • Women did not even want the vote

Read more background here…

These make sobering, bizarre and scary reading for me. It is amazing that some of these sentiments are deployed when thinking about gender today.

There may be different views about, but for me, the way I hold faith and do church as a Baptist is with equality.

Over the past year there has been a debate as to which will be the first statue of a woman erected in Parliament Square. Millicent Fawcett was chosen ahead of Emmeline Pankhurst. Pankhurst was the founder of militant Women’s Social and Political Union and Fawcett the leader of the more moderate National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. People debate which of these two played the greater part in winning the vote for women. Maybe it was both – it needed the dual effect of the militant and the moderate. What they both had in common was being people who dissented from the status quo – informed by values and belief and committed to action.

So the Suffragette motto was “Deeds not words” in response to the then Prime Minister who said he agreed with their argument but “was obliged to do nothing at all about it” and so urged the women to “go on pestering” and to exercise “the virtue of patience”. Women dissented and decided to do more than simply wait!

Now within the family of Christian churches Baptists claim to be people of dissent, I’d like to think that our commitment to Christ meaning being dissenters for Jesus in our lives – in action and not just what we preach. In that we may find a blend of the Fawcett and the Pankhurst; who knows?

Graham Brownlee, February 2018

No Room… Graham’s blog

Wherever we look, today’s headlines are that there are no beds left in hospitals. This is awful but not surprising news, and of course it comes only a couple of weeks after Christmas, the time we all read and sing of there being no room at the inn.

Back in December I was at a prayer meeting when a young doctor shared the burden and pressure faced in his ward due to bed pressure, staff shortages and the delicate decisions made on referrals and discharging patients.

This week I have heard someone talking of Christians in another city taking on roles to offer support in an A&E ward.

All this not only speaks to me of the excellent work and commitment of NHS staff but also of overburdening pressures.

I don’t want to get into blame and political point scoring, but I do want to cry out that this isn’t right.

We must not tolerate there being no room at the hospital. Now I know there was no room at the inn and that this was a mark of hope in that it spoke of the humility of God in Christ and the overturning, bottom up power of the Kingdom of God. But today we do need voices to be raised, we do need care to be offered and we do need support to be given to all NHS staff as well of course to those who are missing out on the beds. 

Graham Brownlee

January 2018

Being Bullied

In Tyneside when I started secondary school I was picked on for being a first year and having a southern accent. Got my head flushed down the toilet on Foggy Friday. Later, I was jumped on for being little and in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was so little it took me until year 9 (3rd year in old money) to get to 5 foot. I was small enough to have the nickname ‘pid’. So, my growth spurt after that was merely something of a late rally. Anyway, in both those cases the perpetrators ‘legged it’ afterwards. For as bullies they weren’t that powerful and needed the make a quick getaway.

I have only been blatantly bullied once. By that I mean aggressively confronted by someone who wasn’t seeking to hide and was unconcerned about being overheard. This was by a local councillor in a town hall corridor. In my work in London and elsewhere, I have friends and colleagues who have experienced similar confrontations.

Now, we have all discussed this with people who say but politicians are basically good people seeking to serve. But that is not a defense, it merely serves as a cover for not dealing with underlying issues. I have many good friends, whom I respect, who are elected politicians, but they should not be above scrutiny.

Now this relates to the #me too movement that is growing and highlighting a real crisis. As a white male, I am not putting my experiences on a par with women and black, minority and ethnic people in our society. They suffer greater, chronic and insidious abuse that needs to be addressed. It is good that people are finding their voice.

My reason for mentioning my experience was to affirm that politics has a problem. The problem is of people in power who believe that they have license, who control the prospects and livelihoods of others, who believe that being elected and having status takes them above normal courtesies and behaviours or even that such aggressive behaviour is the way to get things done. Or it may simply be that they have become accustomed or resigned to this being the way things are around them. I am connecting sexual exploitation with power. It is also the power of patronage and celebrity that has enabled film producers etc. to practice serial exploitation.

Churches are not immune from exploitation at the hands of leaders. So we have a common problem of power.
We have a situation where sexual temptation and exploitation is widespread and needs to be tackled by policies, monitoring and training. We do need mechanisms for protecting people and hearing concerns. But deeper than that we must address power; we must consider who we value, people especially those who serve rather than rule and those who are weaker; we must seek to build different cultures in politics, the arts and in many other spheres of society. This is a matter of values, education and support for all.

I write this after political leaders have met to agree actions and we have learnt of the death of welsh cabinet minister Carl Sargeant. This says to me that immediate headline reactions are being made to calm a crisis and address media attention. But the culture and values are not securely in place.

Whilst high profile leaders can still make ‘shoot from the hip comments’ which betray their values and attitudes we cannot be confident that things have changed. Politics, the arts, faith and other spheres and structures in society matter. So, what do we do? Educate, value the sphere of society more than the people at the top, respect our leaders as servants not patrons. And in the short term, when new practices are drawn up in Westminster, Hollywood and elsewhere check them not by what the authors of policies say but by how those on the receiving end respond. Some once said – the first shall be last and the last first.

Graham Brownlee, November 2017

Universal credit – really?

The accelerated roll out of Universal Credit is in the news currently for the hardship it is causing. It seems to me that it was designed by policy makers and politicians to streamline the benefits system and focus it more to moving people into work. There may have been a motivation to save money as well. It was certainly an important piece of work.

Now I think it is vital to read, watch and listen to the items being posted about this issue. Then to speak out about what you have learnt.

However, there is an important lesson here.

It seems that this policy was designed without thorough consultation with those who are the recipients of the benefits. Or maybe people on the receiving end have been involved, but their perspective hasn’t been noted and applied.

There are better ways of doing things. It is valuable to shape what we do in society with as many views of possible. Take matters of finance and benefits – surely, we should listen to people who receive benefits, politicians, community and advocacy groups, policy makers, business people and so on. Following such a process is not a way to fudge issues, to leave things as they are or to favour one viewpoint. It would be a route to more courageous solutions.

In such a process, we should always give primacy of views to the people who are affected most and form solutions collaboratively. To put it another way “Nothing about us without us is for us.” This is a well tried and crucial principle. It is an approach which is being applied by Poverty Truth Commissions in cities and areas across the country, and indeed in our own city of Leeds –

If those who designed and now apply the new benefits system took this approach there may have been an opportunity for it to have been more ‘universal’ and more a ‘credit’ to us all. Most importantly, by these means we find plans and solutions that are people focused.

In the Christian faith there is a similar principle at work. The hope and transformation we seek is not offered at a distance but in Jesus. It is offered by one who is fully human… as the bible puts is: “Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” Hebrews 2: 17,18

For this reason, the hope of the Christian faith is people orientated, offered in human terms and fashioned with us.
“Nihil de nobis, sine nobis”

Graham Brownlee, October 2017

It takes a whole village to raise a child. – Igbo and Yoruba (Nigeria) Proverb

Like this proverb, in Christian terms it takes a church (or Christian community) to grow a disciple. This is something we have been exploring for some time at MBC, and now we are at a practical stage of encouraging and equipping one another in being disciples together.

We have listened to groups and have formed a plan.

We believe that balanced Christian living involves relationship with God, being in community with others and taking action in the wider world. As Micah 6:8 puts in: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (NRSV)

Then in church we believe that we do not live as Christians in isolation. So, we practice and grow in these three disciplines in community – it unfolds in relationship.

This autumn we have provided a tool kit of questions to help every home group reflect on what makes a healthy group. Alongside that we will be running five fortnightly sessions (on Tuesday evenings) to give insights and opportunity for discussion on how to be disciples and what are healthy practices for groups or individuals. These sessions will begin after the school half term. They are for anyone who would like to explore their own discipleship and look to refresh or begin to be involved in group life in church.

Through the autumn some new groups will be forming. At the end of this process we are planning in January 2018 to relaunch existing groups and offer new discipleship across the church.

We believe that being a disciple is a calling on all of us to be shared with others. The whole of MBC seeks to raise disciples. As the Sukuma (Tanzania) proverb says “One knee does not bring up a child” and in the Swahili (East and Central Africa) proverb “One hand does not nurse a child.”

So for us being and growing disciples belongs in families, friendship groups and home groups – it is our shared joy and responsibility.

Look out for more on this in our Sunday sermons, home groups, new groups and through the five sessions coming up at the end of October.

Graham Brownlee, September 2017

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